Joseph Mallord William Turner

Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis

exhibited 1843

On loan

ACMI (Melbourne, Australia): Pudong

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 787 × 787 mm
frame: 1036 × 1036 × 115 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

Pair to 'Shade and Darkness - The Evening of the Deluge'. This triumphant explosion of light brilliantly exploits the warm side of the spectrum. It celebrates God's Covenant with Man after the Flood. The serpent in the centre represents the brazen serpent raised by Moses in the wilderness as a cure for plague. Here it symbolises Christ's redemption of Man in the New Covenant. Turner's verses rather undermine the optimism of the religious message by emphasising the transience of the natural phenomena engendered by the 'returning sun'.

Gallery label, November 1992

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Catalogue entry

405. [N00532] Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory)-the Morning after the Deluge—Moses writing the Book of Genesis Exh. 1843


Canvas, 31×31 (78·5 × 78·5)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (48, ‘Moses writing the Book of Genesis’ 2'6 1/2" × 2'6 1/2" in diameter); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1905.

Exh. R.A. 1843 (385); Arts Council tour 1952–3 (21); Tate Gallery 1959 (359); New York 1966 (29, repr. in colour p. 41); Dresden (17, repr.) and Berlin (28, colour pl. 18) 1972; R.A. 1974–5 (523); Hamburg 1976 (131 and 157, repr. and colour pl. 19); Hague 1978–9 (xiv, repr. in colour); Paris 1983–4 (73, repr. in colour); Birmingham 1984.

Lit. Thornbury 1862, i, p. 347; 1877, p. 466; Hamerton 1879, p. 295; Bell 1901, pp. 147–8 no. 240; Armstrong 1902, p. 220; Davies 1946, p. 186; Clark 1949, pp. 105–6, 108; Evans and Whitehouse 1956, p. 273; Finberg 1961, pp. 396, 508 no. 554; R.D. Gray, ‘J. M. W. Turner and Goethe's Colour Theory’, German Studies presented to Walter Horace Bruford 1962, pp. 112–16; Herrmann 1963, pp. 35– 6; Kitson 1964, p. 82; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, pp. 70–72; Gowing 1966, pp. 38, 51, repr. in colour p. 41; Lindsay 1966, pp. 212–13; 19662, pp. 52, 55– 6; Gage 1968, p. 685; Gage 1969, pp. 113, 126, 132, 173, 185–8, 190, 194, colour pl. 52; Reynolds 1969, pp. 158, 192–7, colour pl. 163; Holcomb 1970, pp. 27–8, pl. 14; Herrmann 1975, pp. 50–51, 233, colour pl. 150; Russell and Wilton 1976, pp. 18–19; Heffernan 1978, pp. 142–3; Wallace 1979, pp. 113– 14, pl. 15; Wilton 1979, pp. 200–2, 212, colour pl. 232; Wilton 1980, pp. 140–1; Butlin 1981, pp. 43–5; Paulson 1982, pp. 88, 103.

Exhibited in 1843 with the following lines:

‘The ark stood firm on Ararat; th'returning sun
Exhaled earth's humid bubbles, and emulous of light,
Reflected her lost forms, each in prismatic guise
Hope's harbinger, ephemeral as the summer fly
Which rises, flits, expands, and dies.’

Fallacies of Hope, M.S.

A companion to Shade and Darkness—The Evening of the Deluge (No. 404 [N00531]). The choice of subjects may have been influenced by John Martin's Eve of the Deluge and The Assuagement, exhibited as companions at the R.A. in 1840.

The allusion to Goethe's Fahrbenlehre, of which Turner owned and annotated Eastlake's translation, parallels his allusion to Du Fresnoy in Watteau Study twelve years earlier (No. 340 [N00514]). It refers to Goethe's theory of a colour-circle divided into ‘plus’ and ‘minus’ colours: the former, reds, yellows and greens, were associated by Goethe with gaiety, warmth and happiness, while the latter, blues, blue-greens and purples, were seen as productive of ‘restless, susceptible, anxious impressions’. R.D. Gray has suggested that Turner's opposition between ‘Light and Colour’ on the one hand and ‘Shade and Darkness’ on the other was also a criticism of Goethe's theory that colour was the product equally of Light and Dark: Turner's ‘Dark’ picture he sees as the negation of colour. Gage, however, sees Turner's intention as the restoration of the equality of Light and Dark as values in art and nature. To the sublimity of darkness he added a sublimity of light. But the verses given to Light and Colour, which demonstrates the ‘plus’ colours, make it as pessimistic as Shade and Darkness. Turner transformed the rainbow of the Covenant into scientifically-induced prismatic bubbles, each one an ephemeral harbinger of hope, born to die. In addition the Biblical concordance between Noah's Covenant and that of Moses writing the Book of Genesis apparently on the Tables of the Law, with the Brazen Serpent foreshadowing the Crucifixion before him, must be seen in the light of Turner's constant use of the serpent as a symbol of evil (see Gage 1969, pp. 185–7, for a fuller development of this theory).

Andrew Wilton suggests (1979) the influence on these centrifugal compositions of the baroque cupolas Turner must have seen in Rome and Venice. The influence of Turner's own vignette compositions has also been suggested; Wilton points particularly to The Fall of the Rebel Angels, engraved by Edward Goodall for Milton's Poetical Works, 1835 (repr. Wilton 1980, p. 141 no. 52), and Sinai's Thunder, engraved by Robert Wallis for Campbell's Poetical Works, 1837 (repr. ibid., p. 142 no. 53).

The critics were universal in their condemnation of these pictures, though the Spectator for 13 May 1843 found them intelligible as illustrations ‘of Goethe's Theory of Light and Colour ... but further we cannot follow the painter. There may be some sublime meaning in all this ... but ... we see in these two octagon-shaped daubs only two brilliant problems— chromatic harmonies of cool and warm colours.’ The Athenaeum for 17 June as usual regretted ‘Mr. Turner's flagrant abuse of his genius’ but admitted that ‘there is a poetical idea dimly described through the prismatic chaos, which arrests the attention and excites the fancy.’ For the Morning Chronicle, 9 May, they ‘are perfectly indescribable, and seem to consist of

                atoms casually together hurl'd’.

The Times for 11 May called Shade and Darkness a ‘ridiculous daub’ and its companion ‘A wretched mixture of trumpery conceits, involving an anachronism that the meanest scholar at a parish school could rectify.’ Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine for August, spurred by the recent appearance of the first volume of Ruskin's Modern Painters, was even more scathing. From Shade and Darkness, wrote the critic, ‘we learn ... that, on the eve of the mighty Deluge, a Newfoundland dog was chained to a post, lest he should swim to the ark; that a pig had been drinking a bottle of wine ... that men, women, and children (such we suppose they are meant to be) slept a purple sleep, with most gigantic arms round little bodies ...’ and so on.

Both pictures are painted up to the edge of the canvas but were finished, probably in their frames, as octagons, though it seems that Turner may have thought at one time of finishing No. 405 [N00532] as a circle.

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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