Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Angel Standing in the Sun

exhibited 1846

On loan

Buk-Seoul Museum of Art (Seoul, South Korea): Pudong

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 787 × 787 mm
frame: 1035 × 1035 × 120 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

This painting, from late in Turner’s career, shows scenes from the Old Testament, the first section of the Bible. In In the centre, Archangel Michael appears with his flaming sword. In the foreground are scenes of murder and betrayal. Adam and Eve cry over the body of their son Abel (left), murdered by his brother, and Judith stands over the headless body of Holofernes (right), who she has decapitated.
Turner's pessimistic picture seems to show death is everywhere. It has been suggested this reflects his concern about how his own life and art would be judged. In a message to his critics, he exhibited the picture with the words, 'the feast of vultures when the day is done.'

Gallery label, July 2020

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Catalogue entry

425. [N00550] The Angel standing in the Sun Exh. 1846


Canvas, 31 × 31 (78·5 × 78·5)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (45, ‘The Angel of the Sun’ 2'6 5/8" × 2'6 5/8"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1905.

Exh. R.A. 1846 (411); New York 1966 (37, repr. p. 54); Edinburgh 1968 (17); R.A. 1974–5 (526, repr.).

Lit. Ruskin 1857 (1903–12, xiii, p. 167); Thornbury 1862, i, p. 349; 1877, p. 467; Bell 1901, pp. 155–6 no. 259; Armstrong 1902, p. 217; MacColl 1920, p. 25; Davies 1946, p. 186; Clare 1951, p. 117, repr.; Finberg 1961, pp. 413, 510 no. 577; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 72, pl. 128; Gowing 1966, p. 53, repr. p. 54; Lindsay 1966, pp. 180, 213; Gage 1969, pp. 145–6, 187, pl. 70; Reynolds 1969, pp. 158, 200–03, pl. 172; Holcomb 1970, pp. 27–8, pl. 15; Herrmann 1975, pp. 54, 235, pl. 181; Fehl 1976, pp. 128–9, pl. 20; Stuckey 1976, pp. 159–75, pl. 2; Paulson 1978, pp. 182–3, pl. 54; Finley 1979, pp. 685–95, pl. 8; Wallace 1979, pp. 114–15, pl. 17; Wilton 1979, pp. 165, 198–203, 216, 222, pl. 237; Paulson 1982, pp. 90–2, 94, 102–3, pl. 45.

Accompanied in the R.A. catalogue by the following passage from the Book of Revelation:

‘And I saw an angel standing in the sun; and he cried with a loud voice, saying to all the fowls that fly in the midst of heaven, Come and gather yourselves together unto the supper of the great God;

That ye may eat the flesh of kings, and the flesh of captains and the flesh of mighty men, and the flesh of horses, and of them that sit on them, both free and bond, both small and great’.—Revelation, xix., 17, 18.

and also a quotation from Samuel Rogers' Voyage of Columbus:

‘The morning march that flashes to the sun;
The feast of vultures when the day is done’-Rogers.

In the foreground Adam and Eve lament over the dead body of Abel and Judith stands over the decapitated body of Holofernes, perhaps one of the captains mentioned in the quotation from Revelation. Samson and Delilah are also shown.

The chained serpent derives from Revelationxx, 1–2. Gage suggests that Turner has conflated the Angel of the Apocalypse with the Cherubim with flaming sword at the Gate of Paradise, enforcing the Expulsion of Adam and Eve. The passage from Samuel Rogers' fragmentary Voyage of Columbus from which Turner took his second quotation bears the subtitle ‘The Flight of an Angel of Darkness’, a conception, as Gage points out, in accord with Turner's growing pessimism. Turner's choice of subject may have been partly suggested by Ruskin's reference to him as ‘the great angel of the Apocalypse’ in Modern Painters i 1843 (1903–12, iii, p. 254; the reference was omitted from the third edn of 1846 onwards). There is also a possibility that Turner, in declining health, saw the picture as a summing up of his career. Already, the previous year, there had been a suggestion that he might give up exhibiting (see No. 414 [N00545]).

Charles Stuckey also sees this picture, like its companion Undine (No. 424 [N00549]), as in part an attack on Eagles, the vultures in the quotation from Rogers being, of course, critics. Rogers's poem ends with Columbus seeing a vision of an angel who tells him that his work is done and in this picture Turner sees himself, in contrast to the humble fisherman of the companion picture, as the archangel Michael (who is associated with the rainbow) standing for truth and justice while the small Old Testament scenes reflect Turner's attacks at the hands of not only the critics but also his mother and the Royal Academy; he had been disappointed at not becoming President of the Royal Academy the previous summer.

This picture and Undine (No. 424 [N00549]) provoked the usual lament from the Athenaeum for 9 May 1846: ‘That there is art in them, consummate art, in reconciling to the eye such effusions of all the strongest and most opposing colours of the palette, we freely admit: but we as freely declare our regret, that over such aberrations of talent no controlling influence exerts its genial restraint’. The Spectator for the same date had more, though qualified, praise, calling them ‘tours de force that show how nearly the gross materials of the palette can be made to emulate the source of light-of the figures we can only say that Turner seems to have taken leave of form altogether’. For The Times of 6 May ‘The “Angel standing in the Sun” is a truly gorgeous creation... It is all very well to treat Turner's pictures as jests; but things like these are too magnificent for jokes; and the readers of the Oxford Graduate know that many of these obscurities are not altogether unaccountable’—the reference is to the first volume of Ruskin's Modern Painters, published anonymously in 1843. Ruskin, however, writing some twelve years later, passed over the two pictures as ‘painted in the period of decline’, with ‘the distinctive characters in the execution, indicative of mental disease; though in reality these characters are so trenchant that the time of fatal change may be brought within a limit of three or four months, towards the close of the year 1845’.

The picture has suffered from some overcleaning in the past, and also from the discoloration of the meguilp medium in some of the whites.

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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