Joseph Mallord William Turner

Commentary on Nicolas Poussin’s ‘Landscape with Diogenes’ (Inscription by Turner)


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite on paper
Support: 128 × 114 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest LXXII 25 a

Catalogue entry

Turner’s remarks read:
Diogenes and his Scholars. | a charming and grand composition the | distant houses are chiefly light the foreground | large as to parts and beautifully pencil’d – | and the figures happily introduced the yellow | colour of Diogenes and the gray of the Boy with a light tinge [Finberg: ? toga] of Red unites the whole half | deep tone in the foreground and makes the | picture possess three broad strata of the | sky distance and Houses the second the | foreground the third with the figure and | the immediate foreground rather lighter. Yet | upon the whole the picture is rather too | green and cold as the Trees are undeservedly | and the Whole of the Buildings White.
Finberg correctly surmised that the subject of Turner’s notes was ‘Poussin’s “Diogène jetant son écueille”’. The Cynic philosopher is moved to cast aside his last worldly possession, his drinking bowl, by seeing a man taking water from his cupped hands. The anachronistic title – ‘Diogenes and his Scholars’ – with which Turner headed his notes doubtless arose from a hasty confusion of écueille with école. The picture, which has an exquisite wooded landscape setting, dates from 1648 or perhaps later. It was one of the group of pictures by Poussin (Nicolas Poussin 1594–1665) acquired by Louis XIV from the collection of the Duc de Richelieu. Nineteenth-century artists and critics gave it a special place among the Louvre’s Poussins for its landscape qualities. Turner made a copy of it in his Dieppe, Rouen, Paris sketchbook when in the Louvre again in 1821 (Tate D24537; Turner Bequest CCLVIII 20). On this later occasion he mistakenly attributed it to Gaspard Poussin. Turner’s observation in 1802 of the picture’s tonal ‘strata’ relates to his own habit of dividing pictorial planes into distinct colours or tones, a practice first apparent in seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Flemish landscape painting. Turner was clearly alert to the way in which the contrast between the verdant landscape and the background buildings amplifies the theme of the rejection of worldly goods and a return to nature. The ‘distant houses’ include the Belvedere of the Vatican.

David Blayney Brown
July 2005

Michael Kitson, ‘Poussin’, in Evelyn Joll, Martin Butlin and Luke Herrmann eds., The Oxford Companion to J.M.W. Turner, Oxford 2001, p.328.

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