Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Approach to Venice


Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour and gouache on paper
Support: 230 × 323 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCCXVI 16

Display caption

Turner's visit to Venice in 1840 resulted in some of his most atmospheric watercolours. His limpid washes vividly capture the unique qualities of flickering and reflected light found in the city. Ruskin recognised that Venice held a special place in Turner's affections, claiming that 'The Alps brought him always sadness, but Venice delight'. It is unlikley, however, that Ruskin would have known any of these sketches before Turner's death. While in Venice in 1845, he wondered whether Turner could be persuaded to make him a finished watercolour view of the city: 'his ideal of it is superb - it makes me quite pine for it here, that I may feel it more. Venice itself is now nothing, barring always fishing boats'.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

Albeit differing in detail, the general arrangement of the boats in the foreground and the distant skyline of Venice across the Lagoon, as well as the colour and mood in this watercolour clearly relate to the oil painting Approach to Venice, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1844 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; engraved in 1859: Tate impression T05193).1 In recognising the connection, in 1857 John Ruskin gave the present work the same title, and described it briefly: ‘From the land side, before the railroad bridge was built. The line of green posts marks the edge of the deep water channel which led from Mestre to the opening of the Grand Canal. Very noble.’2
By the turn of the twentieth century its title had been extended to ‘The Approach to Venice: Sunset.’3 Ian Warrell has observed that the posts are not present in the painting, ‘in accordance, no doubt, with [the poet Samuel] Rogers’s phrase, “The path lies o’er the sea | Invisible”’, quoted in the 1844 Academy catalogue.4 There a full moon is shown low on the left (at the point where the twin sails bisect the horizon here), and the scene indeed appears to be set around sunset, and thus viewed from the north. Eric Shanes has noted the sails among examples of this motif which occurs most prominently in Campo Santo, Venice, exhibited in 1842 (Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio),5 where in combination with their reflections they perhaps evoke an angel’s wings in relation to the cemetery subject,6 and Lindsay Stainton has considered this watercolour as ‘imbued with something of the same elegiac qualities’.7 As well as the more straightforward connection to the 1844 painting, Warrell has proposed a link with Morning, Returning from the Ball, St Martino, exhibited at the Academy in 1845 (private collection),8 where ‘the elegant boat with paired sails on the left is redeployed to play an important role in anchoring the design’.9
As Warrell has approvingly noted,10 Finberg characterised the composition’s ‘lyrical fervour’, with the city ‘banished to the distance; it is nothing but a few domes and towers gleaming uncertainly’, picked out in fluid white gouache ‘above the water in the mists of evening. The whole interest is thrown upon the sky and water’, with the boats and figures ‘merely accessories’; as such he felt it ‘sets a standard of imaginative intensity’ not sustained in most of the Venice colour studies.11 Stainton and Warrell have proposed its theme as an echo of the more conventional watercolour Venice, from Fusina (private collection),12 painted a year or two after Turner’s first visit in 1819, with its distant, generalised evocation of the pale city on the horizon across the Lagoon as a backdrop to detailed boats and figures on the shores of the mainland.13
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.259–60 no.412, pl.417; see also Warrell 2003, pp.236, 238, and Moorby 2014, p.118.
Cook and Wedderburn 1904, p.210.
Ibid., footnote 2, and p.611; Finberg 1909, II, p.1019; Finberg 1930, p.174.
Warrell 2003, p.239.
Butlin and Joll 1984, p.246 no.397, pl.401 (colour).
See Shanes 1990, pp.93, 356 note 23.
Stainton 1985, p.60.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.265–7 no.422, as ‘Returning from the Ball (St Martha)’, exhibited 1846, pl.429 (colour).
Warrell 2003, p.239.
See Warrell 2003, p.239.
Finberg 1930, p.174.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.383 no.721, pl.158.
See Stainton 1985, p.60, and Warrell 1995, p.95,
Wilton 1975, p.142; see also p.143, and Wilton 1977, p.81.
Butlin and Joll 1984, p.254 no.406, pl.411 (colour).
Finberg 1909, II, p.1018.
Finberg 1930, p.173.
See Wilton 1975, pp.138, 142, 143.
‘Appendix: The papers used for Turner’s Venetian Watercolours’ (1840, section 7) in Warrell 2003, p.259.
Ibid.; see also Peter Bower, Turner’s Later Papers: A Study of the Manufacture, Selection and Use of his Drawing Papers 1820–1851, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1999, p.113 under no.67.

Matthew Imms
September 2018

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