Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Bridge of Sighs, Venice, on a Starlit Night


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour and bodycolour on paper
Support: 227 × 154 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCCXIX 5

Catalogue entry

This atmospheric night scene shows the view north up the Rio del Palazzo from off the Bacino, with the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) on left and New prisons on right, linked by the enclosed high-level Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri). The actual proportions of the space beneath the bridge are approximately square, so the height to the arch and the narrowness of the canal are correspondingly manipulated here to claustrophobic effect.1
Turner had first recorded the bridge in the distance along the canyon-like canal from the other direction in the 1819 Milan to Venice sketchbook (Tate D14388; Turner Bequest CLXXV 39a). His vignette watercolour of about 1830 (private collection)2 was engraved in 1832 for Lord Byron’s Life and Works (Tate impression: T06650) as a romantic night scene, again looking towards the Bacino, and strongly lit by a low full moon over the water. Among several of showing the bridge in the 1833 Venice sketchbook, there is a detailed pencil drawing from the south (Tate D31985; Turner Bequest CCCXIV 30a).
Compare also views below the bridge in the first drawing of the Venice sequence in the 1840 Rotterdam to Venice book (Tate D32412–D32413; Turner Bequest CCCXIX 76a–77) and, probably among the last he made in the city, Tate D31309 (Turner Bequest CCCX 17) in the Venice; Passau to Würzburg book. There are also two related pencil views on a folded sheet in the present grouping (Tate D32196–D32197; Turner Bequest CCCXVII 14a, b). The bridge had featured prominently in the title, if less so in the composition, of the oil painting Bridge of Sighs, Ducal Palace and Custom-House, Venice: Canaletti painting, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1833 (Tate N00370),3 and earlier in 1840 Turner had shown Venice, the Bridge of Sighs (Tate N00527),4 where it is indeed the focal point.
Lindsay Stainton saw what ‘seems to be more than a coincidental relationship’ with William Etty’s (1787–1849) highly finished painting The Bridge of Sighs, shown at the Academy in 1835 (York Museums Trust).5 Ian Warrell has concurred, noting that one of Turner’s exhibits that year was numbered consecutively with Etty’s and would thus have been hung close by.6 The rigorously detailed view also exaggerates the proportionate height and narrowness, and is lit by strong moonlight from the top left, casting deep shadows and brightly illuminating most of the near side of the bridge and the upper part of the prison. Meanwhile, the body of a criminal is brought out to the water at the shadowy bottom right to be tipped into the Lagoon, with ‘a single star ... looking down upon the dark deeds below’, in the works of the painting’s first owner.7 Stainton suggested that the ‘same incident can just be made out’ in Turner’s scene,8 although there is little more than criss-cross strokes of white at the equivalent point, which may be random, or signify his recollection of the figures in Etty’s painting.9
See Warrell 2003, p.131.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.446 no.1225.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.200–1 no.349, pl.356 (colour).
Ibid., p.235 no.383, pl.386 (colour).
Stainton 1985, p.49; see also Joll 1992, p.7.
See Warrell 2003, pp.131, 264 note 9.
W.C. Macready, quoted in Stainton 1985, p.49.
See Lyles 1992, p.70.
Warrell 2003, p.131; see also David Blayney Brown, Turner and Byron, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1992, p.95, in relation to Turner’s 1840 painting.
Lyles 1992, p.70.
Plant 1996, p.155.
‘Appendix: The papers used for Turner’s Venetian Watercolours’ (1840, section 11) in Warrell 2003, p.259; see also sections 9 and 10.

Matthew Imms
September 2018

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