Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Lagoon near Venice, at Sunset


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 244 × 304 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCCXVI 25

Catalogue entry

Noting the subject simply as ‘Venice’, in 1857 John Ruskin described the evocative setting: ‘Just after sunset. The position of the city is indicated by the touches of white in the vermilion cloud.’ He continued:
I cannot make out the long purple object like a wall in the middle distance. But I imagine, from the position of the sun, that the subject is a reminiscence of a return from Torcello towards Venice.
The clouds are remarkable as an example of Turner’s frequent practice of laying rich colour on a wet ground, and leaving it to gradate itself as it dried, a few subsequent touches being, in the present instance, added on the right hand. Although the boat in the centre seems a mere scrawl, the action of the gondolier (at the left-hand side) is perfectly given in his forward thrust.1
The ‘touches of white’ Ruskin noted are no longer readily apparent (compare the treatment of the distant city in Tate D32153; Turner Bequest CCCXVI 16), while the ‘purple wall’ seems rather to be simply one more band of strong colour among the rest, modifying the green sea where it meets the horizon below the orange of the sky. Given the lack of features except the posts marking a channel,2 his idea of a ‘reminiscence of a return from Torcello’, among the many islands in the Lagoon a few miles north-east of the city, is entirely conjectural since there are no confirmed Torcello views,3 albeit such a voyage would place the apparent sunset effect in a correspondingly westerly direction. In 1881 he fancifully called the subject ‘Farewell to Venice’,4 perhaps contrasting it with the ‘Approach’ shown in both D32153 and a related painting. Latterly, Leo Costello has taken the present work as evoking ‘a space of desolation and emptiness’, where the ‘city hovers as a ghostly presence on the horizon, which seems to be passing into nothingness with the setting sun’,5 in ‘a “recession from history”’ itself.6
Somehow, by the early twentieth century the work’s official title had become ‘Venice, from Fusina’,7 in which case the view would be to the east, with the glowing sky conventionally assumed to indicate dawn. Martin Butlin noted Ruskin’s original Torcello suggestion as in accord with the ‘sunset effect’,8 and Lindsay Stainton has concurred,9 calling it ‘an astonishing image’,10 and ‘one of those flaming Venetian sunsets which writers from Aretino [1492–1556] onwards had enthusiastically described but which, until Turner, no artist since the Renaissance had painted’.11 Turner’s inscription on the verso (D40157) appears to describe a sunset, which would seem to strengthen the case.12 While noting that there is ‘nothing there’ topographically, Ian Warrell has suggested nevertheless that such colours might have been observed in the eastern part of the sky around sunset.13
Cook and Wedderburn 1904, p.215.
See Stainton 1985, p.26, and Warrell 2003, p.236.
See Warrell 2003, p.236.
Cook and Wedderburn 1904, p.373.
Costello 2012, p.167.
Ibid., p.168.
Cook and Wedderburn 1904, p.215 footnote 2, p.611; see also Finberg 1909, II, p.1020, Finberg 1930, p.174, and comment in Warrell 1995, p.116.
Butlin 1962, p.56.
See Stainton 1985, p.63.
Stainton 1982, p.69.
Stainton 1985, p.26.
See ibid., p.63, Warrell 1995, pp.115, 116, Warrell 2003, p.236, and Taft 2004, p.216.
See Warrell 2003, p.236, and p.265 note 20 for a comparison with the sky looking east in the afterglow near Venice by Edward William Cooke (1811–1880).
Phythian 1910, pp.104–5.
Butlin 1962, p.6.
Ibid., p.11; see also p.56.
Ibid., p.56; see also Stainton 1982, p.69, and Taft 2004, p.216.
Butlin 1962, p.56; see also p.36.
Stainton 1985, p.26.
Warrell 1995, p.116.
See Warrell 2003, p.235.
Ibid., p.236.

Matthew Imms
September 2018

Ormsby and others 2003, p.144.
See discussion, ibid., p.139.
Albeit 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.81, notes that the Muggeridge family had taken over after 1820, still using the ‘C Ansell’ watermark.
‘Appendix: The papers used for Turner’s Venetian Watercolours’ (1840, section 2) in Warrell 2003, p.259.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.463 no.1356, reproduced.
Ibid., p.464 no.1365.
Warrell 2003, p.259.

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