Joseph Mallord William Turner

Moonlight on the Lagoon near Venice


Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour and bodycolour on paper
Support: 245 × 304 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCCXVI 39

Catalogue entry

This evocative scene has long been associated with Venice,1 and indeed it can be related through its support to numerous specifically topographical watercolours associated with Turner’s 1840 visit (see the technical notes below). The Turner scholar C.F. Bell annotated Finberg’s laconic 1909 Inventory entry (‘Moonlight’, in one of the ‘Venice: Miscellaneous’ sections): ‘on the Lagune’.2 Lindsay Stainton has described this as a ‘particularly subtle and velvety example, using a limited range of colours, chiefly blues and blacks, against which tiny glimmers of light from the boats sparkle against the darkness’,3 while in the context of the stormy conditions Turner seems to have witnessed at times during his 1840 stay (see the Introduction to the tour), Timothy Wilcox has suggested that it ‘still conveys a strong suggestion of unsettled weather through many details, not least its cool colours and the broken reflections of the boats’.4
The ‘saturated, inky clouds’ here, ‘painted while the paper was still wet so that the marks ... diffuse into the design’ have been compared technically by Ian Warrell to those in the agitated contemporary daytime watercolour Storm at Venice (British Museum, London).5 Robert Upstone has noted how the ‘city is suggested by the subtle soaking up and removal of some of the colour, probably using a damp brush, while the eye is drawn to the lanterns of the boats, made with spots of bodycolour.’6 Warrell has detected ‘perhaps a suggestion of a dome and a campanile ..., but it is unnecessary to speculate on its identity, as Turner’s subject is less the specifics of place than a contemplation of the nocturnal Lagoon’, as ‘the subdued light opens out to the infinite.’7
Michael Bockemühl has considered the relatively ‘abstract’ nature of the dim, nocturnal composition, and the fleeting, ambiguous nature of the loosely defined compositional elements applied over or worked into the basic structure of horizontal zones: ‘The only spot where a representational element would seem to take on a solid form is the dark area in the centre of the picture, apparently floating there as if weightless. It is only when one views everything as a whole, including the blue zones above and below, that the thought occurs that we could be looking at a ship’. Such ‘colour compositions remain visible, as if they had their own form, thereby producing a purely visible effect’, in this case as a ‘counterpart for the realm of colour to the manner in which moonlight plays under boats in the water.’8 Warrell has discussed several of the Lagoon subjects grouped here in relation to Turner’s contemporary interest in Goethe’s colour theory9 (see the Introduction to this subsection).
See Cook and Wedderburn 1904, p.643.
Undated MS note by Bell (died 1966) in copy of Finberg 1909, Prints and Drawings Room, Tate Britain, II, p.1021.
Stainton 1985, p.63; see also Upstone 1993, p.37.
Wilcox 1990, p.36.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.463 no.1354, reproduced.
Upstone 1993, p.37.
Warrell 2003, p.236.
Bockemühl 1991, p.62.
See Warrell 2003, p.235.
Taft 2004, p.93.
Albeit Peter Bower, Turner’s Later Papers: A Study of the Manufacture, Selection and Use of his Drawing Papers 1820–1851, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1999, p.81, notes that the Muggeridge family had taken over after 1820, still using the ‘C Ansell’ watermark.
‘Appendix: The papers used for Turner’s Venetian Watercolours’ (1840, section 2) in Warrell 2003, p.259.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.463 no.1356, reproduced.
Ibid., p.464 no.1365.
Warrell 2003, p.259.

Matthew Imms
September 2018

Read full Catalogue entry

You might like

In the shop