Joseph Mallord William Turner

Rouen Cathedral


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Gouache and watercolour on paper
Support: 140 × 194 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLIX 109

Technique and condition

This composition is painted extensively in gouache and some transparent watercolour washes applied to blue paper. For the sky, reddish ultramarine washes and very thin applications of gouache combine with the underlying blue paper to depict a very bright day. The cathedral is largely painted in small, thickly applied localised brush-strokes of gouache that are placed so that the blue paper left visible functions like blue brush-strokes. The building on the left was created in a similar manner, but with transparent washes of brown earth pigments instead of gouache. Both materials can be seen in the crowd in the foreground, as well as a range of others: ultramarine, Mars red (a manufactured earth colour, brighter than the natural ones), yellow ochre and emerald green. X-radiography of the sheet confirmed the presence of lead white in all the gouache, as well as emerald green. Both these materials are very opaque to X-rays, while the other possible materials available to Turner in these colours are not. Turner used emerald green extensively in his oil paintings, and was the earliest adopter of this pigment in watercolour. Later it would be used extensively by the Pre-Raphaelites in both media.
X-radiography is good way of monitoring the survival of the lead white-based gouache, which Turner used with very little gum water to bind it together. Here, it is applied so thickly that it is in danger of flaking off, since the paper support flexes whenever the work is handled. Tiny cracks could be detected by this means, and treated locally by paper conservators to ensure that they are fixed in place.

Joyce Townsend
March 2011

Catalogue entry

By Thomas Higham in 1833, published in 1834.
In this watercolour Turner magnificently conveys the façade of Rouen cathedral in northern France, with dramatic use of light. He utilises contrasting colours to illustrate sunlight falling across the building, with warm tones of orange and yellow and brilliant white to indicate light hitting the right side of the building, and contrasting cool tones of lilac and pale turquoise blue as well as pink to convey the left side in shadow. He picks out the intricate textured detail of the carved stonework with pen and gouache. At left, the rust-coloured shades of the arched building soar into the blue tones of the sky, these contrasting colours accentuating the drama. Turner indicates a square receding into space in the background and a wealth of figures in the foreground.
The renowned French artist Claude Monet famously produced similar studies of the coloured effects of light on the façade of Rouen cathedral some sixty years after this watercolour. As art historian Anne Lyles states, Turner made another view of the cathedral’s west front, The Cathedral and Entrance to the Bookseller's Court at Rouen, Normandy, c.1832 (Tate D24714, Turner Bequest CCLIX 149) as seen through the arches of the Portail des Libraires rather than from the market square as here, which was perhaps intended as an alternative design for this series of watercolours.1
The watercolour is based on a sketch of the cathedral’s façade (Tate D24541; Turner Bequest CCLVIII 22)2 and another of the towers (D24520; CCLVIII 11) 3 from Turner’s Dieppe, Rouen and Paris sketchbook of 1821.
An engraving was made from this watercolour by Thomas Higham in 1833 as Rouen Cathedral (Tate impressions T07525, T05606, T06236, T06237 and T06238) for the volume Wanderings by the Seine of 1834.4 In the engraving the intricate detail of the façade is enhanced further.
Lyles 1992, p.60.
Wilton 1979, p.414; Lyles 1992, p.60; Warrell 1999, p.275.
Warrell 1999, p.275.
Leitch Ritchie, Wanderings by the Seine, London, Paris and Berlin 1834, opposite p.152 (but recorded in ‘List of Engravings’ as p.150).
Blank, except for an inscription ‘17’ in grey gouache in the top left corner of the sheet, probably made by Turner. There are one or possibly two faint white chalk marks on the right side of the sheet. Right of centre the sheet is inscribed with a pencil note reading ‘18 [?L]’. The sheet is stamped just off centre with the Turner Bequest monogram above the number ‘CCLIX – 109’, which is also written in pencil in the lower right corner of the sheet. There is a small circular greyish stain at the bottom centre of the sheet.

Caroline South
November 2017

Read full Catalogue entry


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