Joseph Mallord William Turner


exhibited 1830

Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1220 × 915 mm
frame: 1423 × 1118 × 110 mm
Accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 1984. In situ at Petworth House

Catalogue entry

333. [T03887] Jessica Exh. 1830


Canvas, 48 × 36 (122 × 91·5)

Coll. Bought from Turner by the third Earl of Egremont (the April number of the Library of the Fine Arts 1831 reported ‘it is also said that his Lordship has purchased Mr. Turner's picture of Jessica’); by descent to the third Lord Leconfield who in 1947 conveyed Petworth to the National Trust; in 1957 the contents of the State Rooms were accepted by the Treasury in part payment of death duties.

Exh. R.A. 1830 (226); Tate Gallery 1951 (7); R.A. 1951–2 (175); Whitechapel 1953 (82); R.A. 1974–5 (331); Paris 1983–4 (51, repr. in colour).

Lit. Petworth Inventories 1837, 1856 (North gallery); Burnet and Cunningham 1852, pp. 29, 44, 116 no. 154; Waagen 1854, iii, p. 38; Thornbury 1862, ii, pp. 14–15, 397; 1877, pp. 199, 202, 576, 594; Bell 1901, p. 113 no. 167; Armstrong 1902, p. 223; Collins Baker 1920, p. 124 no. 91; Hussey 1925, p. 974 repr.; Whitley 1930, pp. 191–2; Falk 1938, p. 90; Finberg 1961, pp. 321–2, 326, 490 no. 350; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 44, pl. 79; Lindsay 1966, p. 171; Burd 1969, p. 264; Gage 1969, pp. 91, 167; Reynolds 1969, p. 137, fig. 118; Gage 1972, p. 56; Herrmann 1975, pp. 36, 232–3, pl. 128; Joll 1977, pp. 375, 379, pl. 7; Wilton 1979, pp. 208–10; Gage 1980, p. 252; Ziff 1980, p. 170.

Bell states ‘That this picture was painted in Rome in 1828, is apparent from a letter from the artist to Chantrey, printed by Thornbury p. 100’ (1877 edition). However, in fact the letter in question does not mention the subject of any of the pictures that Turner was engaged in painting at that time (November) and the reference that he was ‘getting on with Lord E's’ almost certainly alludes to Palestrina (No. 295 [N06283]) while the smaller 3 ft by 4 ft canvas that Turner finished to stop the visitors to his studio ‘gabbling’ was probably Orvieto (No. 292 [N00511]). Although, therefore, it remains possible that Jessica was painted in Rome, there is no firm evidence to support this and it seems more likely that Turner painted it in the normal way immediately before its exhibition in 1830.

An entirely different account of the origin of Jessica was printed in The Times for 9 December 1959 in an article by an anonymous writer whose mother was Lord Egremont's grand-daughter. The latter who, as a small child, remembered Turner well, in old age dictated some reminiscences of the artist's visits to Petworth. According to her, during a discussion among several celebrated painters who were then staying at Petworth, one of them, after chaffing Turner on his predilection for yellow, said ‘A yellow background is all very well in landscapes, but would not be possible in our kind of pictures’. Turner replied, addressing his patron, ‘subject pictures are not my style but I will undertake to paint a picture of a woman's head with a yellow background if Lord Egremont will give it a place in his gallery’. Although the interval which elapsed between the exhibition of Jessica and its reported purchase by Lord Egremont would seem to throw serious doubts on the authenticity of this story, it may yet contain a grain of truth concerning the genesis of the picture.

Exhibited with the following quotation:

‘Shylock—“Jessica, shut the window, I say”— The Merchant of Venice.

This quotation does not in fact occur in The Merchant of Venice but Turner must have had in mind the scene outside Shylock's house (Act II, scene v) when Shylock counsels Jessica:

‘Lock up my doors ...
But stop my house's ears, I mean my casements’.

However, Launcelot gives her different advice:

‘Mistress, look out at window, for all this;
There will come a Christian by,
Will be worth a Jewess' eye.’

Ziff suggests, in his 1980 review of the first edition of this catalogue, that although Turner intended his Jessica to be Shakespeare's, he may also have had these lines from Rogers's Italy in his mind:

... Now a Jessica
Sung to her lute, her signal as she sate
At her half-open window ...

This was perhaps the most violently abused of Turner's exhibited works to date. Wordsworth, who saw the picture at the R.A. in 1830 said ‘It looks to me as if the painter had indulged in raw liver until he was very unwell.’ The Sun for 3 May asked how an artist ‘who could paint Palestrina could deface the canvas by such a picture’ while the Morning Herald of 18 May urged that in future the Academic Council should have the veto, in which case ‘they doubtless would have rejected Pilate washing his Hands and that thing called Jessica’. The Morning Chronicle, 3 May, wrote ‘It looks like a lady getting out of a large mustard-pot’, a description which the Literary Gazette, 29 May, thought so apt that ‘we feel the temptation to piracy to be irresistable’. This sobriquet seems to have become attached to the picture, for G. Storey, whose notes on the Petworth pictures are given by Thornbury, refers to it thus: ‘The picture called the “Mustard Pot”, Turner's “Jessica”, is a roundabout proof that Turner was a great man; for it seems to me that none but a great man dare have painted anything so bad.’ This view was echoed by Waagen who considered that Jessica ‘shows that limits are assigned even to the most gifted. It is a truly frightful piece of scene painting.’

The Athenaeum for 5 June called Jessica ‘this daub of a drab, libelling Shakespeare out of a foggy window of King's yellow’ while Fraser's Magazine (2, 1830–31 p. 97) also referred to Turner's obsession with yellow, concluding that he must be incurably afflicted with ‘jaundice on the retina.’

In fact, as Gage (1972) has pointed out, this is one of Turner's attempts to reinterpret the work of Rembrandt, not in terms of chiaroscuro, but rather by a blaze of jewel-like colours, and it is certainly more successful than Rembrandt's Daughter (No. 238). Indeed, it is perhaps Turner's most appealing figure picture, containing as it does a hint of Watteauesque pathos.

Gage also suggests that an immediate source for Jessica may have been Rembrandt's Young Woman at a Door (Gerson, Rembrandt. The Complete Edition of the Paintings 1969, pl. 288, Art Institute of Chicago) which was exhibited in London at the British Institution in 1818 (100) and appeared at Christie's on 13 June 1829 (68). The catalogue of the Turner Bicentenary exhibition suggests rather that the composition recalls that of Rembrandt's Lady with a Fan in the Royal Collection (Gerson, pl. 281), which was brought to England in 1814 by Niewenhuys and exhibited at the British Institution three times in the 1820s. Yet a third Rembrandt has been proposed as a source for Jessica by Mr Evan Maurer: the Lucretia in Minneapolis (Gerson, pl. 395), who also holds a tassel in her left hand, wears her hair in the same style and with a pearl similarly placed in her hair. The Lucretia was in the Wombwell collection in England by 1854 when seen by Waagen but it may well have come to England considerably earlier. Jessica certainly has points in common with all three Rembrandts and, as none is really close enough to be considered the definitive model, perhaps Turner had them all at the back rather than in the front of his mind when he painted Jessica.

In the 1983–4 Paris exhibition catalogue Gage suggests that Turner may have been influenced, especially in the palette of Jessica, by yet another Rembrandt, the celebrated Jewish Bride (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) which was in London in the hands of the dealer John Smith from 1825–36.

Constable refers to the picture in a letter to C. R. Leslie written on 27 April 1832, in which he expresses alarm at the proposed reduction in the number of Varnishing Days allowed to R.A.s: ‘As to Turner (to whom no doubt the blow was levelled) [see the entry for No. 238] nothing can reach him, he is in the clouds

The lovely Jessica by his side
Sat like a blooming Eastern bride.’

Published in:
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984

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