Joseph Mallord William Turner

Napoleon and the Lady


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Chalk, graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 218 × 291 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXXX 37

Catalogue entry

This is one of thirteen loose sheets found grouped together, a number of which are believed to be ideas for compositions relating to the life of Napoleon; for more information see the Introduction to this section.
Although the ‘N’ inscribed on this sheet is suggestive of a Napoleonic subject, the study remains mysterious. The Turner Bequest’s first cataloguer, A.J. Finberg, entitled it ‘The Vision’1, a reference to the standing figure with arms outstretched, who is seen above a possibly mourning figure apparently holding flowers. The partly legible inscription on the sheet has been variously read as ‘N and the Lady’, ‘give to the Lady’ and ‘Look to the Lady’2, and the Turner scholar Andrew Wilton has additionally noted that the latter could allude to Act II, scene 3 of Macbeth, when Macduff says this line.3
Jan Piggott suggested a context may be found within Walter Scott’s Life of Napoleon, which Turner had earlier made illustrations for (see the Introduction to this section).4 Scott’s text refers to an incident during Napoleon’s exile on Elba, in August 1814, when ‘a lady arrived... with a boy about five or six years old. She was received by Napoleon with great attention, but at the same time with an air of much secresy [sic]... the individual was known by those near Napoleon’s person to be a Polish lady from Warsaw, and the boy was the offspring of an intrigue betwixt her and Napoleon several years before.’5 However, while the mention of a mysterious ‘lady’ is of possible interest, Turner’s study bears little obvious relation to the scene as described.
Returning to Finberg’s idea of a ‘Vision’, it seems equally possible that the study reflects on Napoleon’s death on St Helena in 1821 or subsequent reburial in Paris in 1840: the latter had probably sparked Turner’s renewed interest in Napoleon as a subject. Both of these events were accompanied by press coverage and also printed imagery; for example an aquatint of c.1821 showed Napoleon rising from his tomb and taking the hand of a woman (possibly his wife Josephine) who gestures towards the heavens (British Museum, London6). The full meaning of Turner’s unfinished study, however, certainly remains unclear.
Finberg 1909, p.893.
See Piggott 1993, p.95, Wilton 1986, p.10, and Wilton 1974, p.172.
Wilton 1986, p.10.
Piggott 1993, p.95.
Walter Scott, Life of Napoleon in Miscellaneous Prose, Vol.XV, Edinburgh 1836, p.250.
Museum number: 1926,0412.138.

Elizabeth Jacklin
September 2018

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