Finberg’s terse suggestion of ‘Sinai (?)’1 as the subject of this small but powerful figure study perhaps intended the Biblical subject of Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness. Turner made the visionary watercolour vignette Sinai’s Thunder as an illustration to Thomas Campbell’s The Pleasures of Hope (National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh),2 engraved for his Poetical Works in 1837 (Tate impression: T04768), with God half-revealed with raised arms amidst cloud and lightning above the throng. Compare also the gesturing spirit and whirling apparition of armed figures in another watercolour vignette, A Tempest, for Samuel Roger’s Voyage of Columbus (Tate D27719; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 202),3 engraved for his Poems in 1834 (Tate impressions: T04677, T05130).
Andrew Wilton suggested the subject of ‘Satan addressing his angels’4 from John Milton’s Paradise Lost and a date of about 1830. Turner provided seven watercolour vignettes to be engraved for an edition of Milton’s Poetical Works published by John Macrone in 1835.5 Among them, with hosts of minute figures painted in strong reds, were The Mustering of the Warrior Angels (Preston Hall Museum, Stockton on Tees)6 from Book V, and The Fall of the Rebel Angels (private collection) from Book VI7 (Tate impressions of the engravings: T06285–T06286). Anne Lyles expanded on Wilton’s suggestion, noting ‘the famous episode in Book One ... when Satan summons his legions on the burning lake’, placing this study at about 1834, and recalling that the episode was ‘the subject of Thomas Lawrence’s diploma picture at the Royal Academy in 1797, for example’, while ‘Turner followed the example of most of his predecessors in depicting Satan with both arms upraised, and adopts an equally heroic pose.’8
Subsequent technical analysis (see the notes below) has shown that the work’s support is in fact watermarked 1841, albeit only on other parts of the larger original sheet from which it was divided, so the subject cannot have been intended for the Macrone edition, as Jan Piggott pointed out.9 Nevertheless the suggestion of the Milton subject has persisted.10 As the technical notes explain, the work was initially one quarter of a sheet, the three others each being used for a coastal landscape in which red is also the predominant colour. Peter Bower has observed that ‘Turner has worked this sheet using a method he used throughout his life, producing four images on the same sheet, only tearing or cutting the individual works apart when they were finished’,11 although as discussed below, the timing of the division is uncertain in this case. Bower noted the impossibility of a direct connection with the 1835 Milton project, but ‘it is possible that such an image would have come to Turner several years after the project was over’ and the four compositions were ‘not studies “for” works as has been supposed, but rather “remembrances” of works already done’,12 in the course of trying out this ‘new paper or even a new brush, using images already deep in him. ... The sheer speed and exuberance of his imagination is unfettered by the scale, the surface or the restricted palette.’13
Finberg 1909, II, p.895.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.452 no.1274, reproduced.
Ibid., p.444 no.1207, reproduced.
Wilton 1987, p.112.
Wilton 1979, pp.450–1 nos.1264–1270.
Ibid., p.451 no.1264.
Lyles 1992, p.73.
See Piggott 1993, pp.21, 96.
See Brown 2002, p.145, and Woof, Hanley and Hebron 2004, p.202.
Bower 1999, p.118.
Piggott 1993, p.96; see also Concannon 2014, p.77.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, p.270 no.425, pl.431 (colour).