Joseph Mallord William Turner

Pilate Washing his Hands

exhibited 1830

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Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 914 × 1219 mm
frame: 1300 × 1610 × 210 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

Turner exhibited this picture at the Royal Academy in 1830 with a quote from the Bible. In St. Matthew’s gospel, Pontius Pilate ‘washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person’. This was to show the crowd he did not want Jesus dead, but ordered his death because that is what the people wanted. He was washing his hands of the responsibility.
This is one of several paintings from the 1830s in which Turner took inspiration from 17th-century artist Rembrandt’s use of colour and biblical subject matter.

Gallery label, July 2020

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Catalogue entry

332. [N00510] Pilate washing his Hands Exh. 1830


Canvas, 36 × 48 (91·5 × 122)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (75, ‘Pilate washing his hands’ 4'0" × 3'0"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1910.

Exh. R.A. 1830(7); Whitechapel 1953 (83); Edinburgh 1968 (6, repr.); R.A. 1974–5 (332).

Lit. Thornbury 1862, i, p. 307; Hamerton 1879, p. 232; Bell 1901, p. 112 no. 164; Armstrong 1902, p. 227; Whitley 1930, p. 191; Davies 1946, p. 187; Finberg 1961, pp. 321, 490 no. 347; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 44, colour pl. xi; Gage 1965, p. 79; Gowing 1966, p. 31; Lindsay 1966, p. 178; Gage 1969, p. 91; Reynolds 1969, pp. 127–8, colour pl. 109; Gage 1972, pp. 53–6, pl. 33; Herrmann 1975, pp. 36. 232, pl. 127; Wilton 1969, pp. 208–10.

Exhibited in 1830 with the text from the Bible:

‘“And when Pilate saw he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person, see ye to it.”—St. Matthew, chap. xxvii. ver. 24.’

This is the first of three paintings of Biblical subjects that owe a lot to Rembrandt, already represented with works of this general character at the National Gallery from its opening in 1824; the others are Shadrach, Meshech and Abednego, exhibited in 1832 (No. 346 [N00517]), and the unfinished Christ driving the Traders from the Temple, also of about this date (No. 436 [N05474]). The renewed interest in figures, which, though relatively small in scale, dominate the composition, their rich costumes and the types of the Jewish priests, as well as the dramatic use of light and the thick heavily worked paint all point to Rembrandt, to whom Turner had already paid tribute in Rembrandt's Daughter, exhibited in 1827 (No. 238).

This picture and the similarly Rembrandtesque Jessica (No. 333 [T03887]), so different from the landscapes of that year (Nos. 292 [N00511], 295 [N06283], 334 and 335), provoked the virulence of the critics. The Literary Gazette for 8 May 1830 called the Pilate ‘wretched and abortive’ and followed this up the next week by quoting a wag ‘saying, he fancied “a pilot washing his hands” was a fine marine subject’.

The Morning Chronicle for 3 May more interestingly linked its attack with an early account of Turner's practice of completing his pictures during the Academy's Varnishing Days. Speaking of this picture and Orvieto (No. 292 [N00511]) the critic wrote, ‘We understand that when these pictures were sent to the Academy, it was difficult to define their subject; and that in the four or five days allowed (exclusively, and, therefore, with shameless partiality to A's [Associates) and R.A.'s to touch on their works, and injure as much as possible the underprivileged) they have been got up as we see them. They still partake of the character of conundrums.’

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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