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Prints and Drawings Room

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Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Gouache and watercolour on paper
Support: 140 × 192 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLIX 121

Display caption

This is one of the forty designs which were engraved for the two volumes of views on the River Seine (published 1834 and 1835). Although St Denis is ostensibly the subject of this image, the ancient cathedral is relegated to the distance, and even the activities of the people in the foreground are of secondary interest to the enveloping coolness of the moonlight. In much the same way that many of Turner's later paintings present forms outlined by the strong sunlight at the centre of his image, he is here exploiting the subdued silhouettes created by a full moon.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

By Samuel Fisher in 1834, published in 1835.
In this watercolour, Turner presents a moonlit view of Saint-Denis, in the northern suburbs of Paris, France. Turner’s delicate contrasts give depth to this tranquil scene. Across the River Seine, he depicts the Basilica of Saint-Denis rising pale, gleaming, delicate and ghost-like in the left background, in contrast to the dark, dense, solidly silhouetted building on the right. In the right foreground, figures and boats are silhouetted against the still waters, whereas at left, moonlight picks out the edges of people, barrels and cartwheels, and casts long blue shadows, particularly below the figure in the central foreground and his cart. The warm tones in the left corner contrast with the cool blues at right. Above the glowing moon, the dark sky is dotted with delicate stars. Within the deeply black-blue building, a single orange light stands out, burning in a lower storey and within the dark reflection in the water below.
The watercolour is based on pencil sketches (in particular Tate D24469,1 as well as D24470, and sketches of the church at D24466 and D24467;2 respectively Turner Bequest CCLVII 154, 154a, 152a, 153) in Turner’s Paris and Environs sketchbook from 1832.
An engraving was made of this watercolour by Samuel Fisher in 1834, as Saint Denis (Tate impressions T04715, T05617 and T06253) for the volume Wanderings by the Seine of 1835.3 In the print, a white-shirted figure has been added to the boat at far left.
Butlin, Wilton and Gage 1974, p.120; Wilton 1979, p.415; Warrell 1999, p.277.
Wilton 1979, p.415; Butlin, Wilton and Gage 1974, p.120.
Leitch Ritchie, Wanderings by the Seine, London, Paris and Berlin 1835, opposite p.148.
Blank, except for an inscription ‘10’ (the ‘0’ appears to have been written over an original numeral ‘1’) and ‘St Denis’ in black gouache in the upper left of the sheet, probably by Turner. The numeral ‘9’ is inscribed in pencil below this in the upper left corner. ‘10[?b]’ appears to be inscribed in the lower right in pencil. The centre is stamped in with the Turner Bequest monogram above the number ‘CCLIX – 121’, which is also written in pencil in the lower right.

Caroline South
November 2017

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