Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Sun of Venice Going to Sea

exhibited 1843

Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 616 × 921 mm
frame: 872 × 1178 × 110 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

In this atmospheric late painting Venice dissolves in early morning mist across the still, greenish waters of the lagoon. In the centre is a fishing boat heading out to sea. Its name, the ‘Sol di Venezia’ (‘Sun of Venice’) is emblazoned across the sail. Turner’s admirer, critic John Ruskin fell in love with the picture when he first saw it at the Royal Academy. He was thrown out of the exhibition for trying to copy it.
Turner accompanied the work with a poem with an unexpected premonition of doom. According to his verses a ‘demon in grim repose’ lay in wait for the boat.

Gallery label, July 2020

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Catalogue entry

402. [N00535] The Sun of Venice going to Sea Exh. 1843


Canvas, 24 1/4 × 36 1/4 (61·5×92)

Inscribed on sail (damaged and retouched) ‘Sol de VENEZA MI RAI.I ...’

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (one of 18–21, 36–40; see No. 383); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1954.

Exh. R.A. 1843 (129); Manchester 1887 (619); Wildenstein's 1972 (55, repr.); R.A. 1974–5 (534, repr.); Leningrad and Moscow 1975–6 (67, repr.); Venice 1983–4 (7, repr. in colour).

Lit. Ruskin 1843 and 1857 (1903–12, iii, pp. 250–51, 545–6; xiii, pp. 163–4); Thornbury 1862, i, p. 348; 1877, p. 466; Hamerton 1879, p. 266; Bell 1901, p. 146 no. 237; Armstrong 1902, pp. 155, 235; Whitley 19282, i, p. 283; Finberg 1930, pp. 140–44, 151, 157, colour pl. 26; Falk 1938, pp. 140–41, repr. facing p. 246; Davies 1946, pp. 151–2, 186; Evans and Whitehouse 1956, p. 273; Finberg 1961, pp. 396, 400, 507 no. 551; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 64, pl. 117; Lindsay 1966, p. 193; 19662, pp. 25, 52; Gage 1969, p. 146, colour pl. 26; Gaunt 1971, p. 11; Hawes 1972, p. 42, repr. p. 46 fig. 13; Shapiro 1972, p. 202; Stuckey 1976, p. 168; Wilton 1979, p. 212, pl. 234; Wilton 1980, p. 100; Butlin 1981, p. 43; Paulson 1982, p. 93, pl. 46; Paulson 19822, p. 148, pl. 97.

The pessimism that lies behind Turner's views of Venice is here made clear in the verses published in the R.A. catalogue:

‘Fair Shines the morn, and soft the zephyrs blow,
Venezia's fisher spreads his painted sail so gay,
Nor heeds the demon that in grim repose
Expects his evening prey.’

Fallacies of Hope, M.S.

Based on part of Thomas Gray's ‘The Bard’, these lines appear slightly differently in different copies of the catalogue, as Ruskin explained in a footnote to his notes on the Turners shown at Marlborough House in 1856: 'Turner seems to have revised his own additions to Gray, in the catalogues, as he did his pictures on the walls, with much discomfiture to the printer and the public. He wanted afterwards to make the first lines of this legend rhyme with each other; and to read:

“Fair shines the moon, the Zephyr” (west wind) “blows a gale”;
Venetia's fisher spreads his painted sail.

‘The two readings got confused, and, if I remember right, some of the catalogues read “soft the Zephyr blows a gale” and “spreads his painted sail so gay”-to the great admiration of the collectors of the Sibylline leaves of the “Fallacies of Hope”.’ Turner's lines also seem to show the influence of Shelley's Lines Written among the Euganean Hills.

Charles Stuckey sees the boat, with its sail bearing a painting of a Venetian subject in Turner's own manner, as a form of self-portrait, an idea partly suggested to him by John McCoubrey. Turner was, of course, a fisherman himself and this would be an example of his late pessimism.

The picture was one of Ruskin's favourites. He is even said to have been ejected by the police from the R.A. in 1843 for making a pencil sketch of it. The following year he noted in his diary on 29 April that ‘Yesterday, when I called with my father on Turner, he was kinder than I ever remember. He shook hands most cordially with my father, wanted us to have a glass of wine, asked us to go upstairs into the gallery. When there, I went immediately in search of the “Sol di Venezia”, saying it was my favourite. “I thought”, said Turner, “it was the ‘St. Benedetto’” [No. 406 [N00534]]. It was flattering that he remembered that I had told him this. I said the worst of his pictures was one could never see enough of them. “That's part of their quality”, said Turner.’ A year later, as Ruskin recorded in a letter to his father from Venice of 14 September 1845, he was delighted if ‘a little taken aback when yesterday, at six in the morning, with the early sun-light just flushing its fold, out came a fishing boat with its painted sail full to the wind, the most gorgeous orange and red, in everything, form, colour and feeling, the very counterpart of the Sol di Venezia.’

When the picture was first exhibited at Marlborough House in 1856 Ruskin commented, at the end of a long description, on the condition of the painting: ‘The sea in this picture was once exquisitely beautiful: is not very severely injured, but has lost much of its transparency in the green ripples. The sky was little more than flake white laid with the pallet-knife; it has got darker, and spotted, destroying the relief of the sails. The buildings in the distance are the ducal palace, dome of St Mark's, and on the extreme left, the tower of San Giorgio Maggiore. The ducal palace, as usual, is much too white, but with beautiful gradations in its relief against the morning mist. The marvellous brilliancy of the arrangement of colour in this picture renders it, to my mind, one of Turner's leading works in oil.’

The critics of the 1843 R.A. exhibition were less enthusiastic, being rather put off by the verses that give the picture its hidden note of doom. ‘His style of dealing with quotations’, wrote the Athenaeum for 17 June, ‘is as unscrupulous as his style of treating nature and her attributes of form and colour’, while the Art Union for June 1843 suggested that Turner's ‘wretched verses may have had some deleterious influence on the painter's mind-may have cast a spell over a great genius. Oh! that he would go back to nature!’ The critic went on, 'The most celebrated painters have been said to be “before their time”, but the world has always, at some time, or other, come up with them. The author of the “Sun of Venice” is far out of sight; he leaves the world to turn round without him: at least in those of his works, of the light of which we have no glimmering, he cannot hope to be even overtaken by distant posterity; such extravagances all sensible people must condemn; nor

“is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this ‘Sun of Venice’.”

The Illustrated London News for 27 May on the whole liked the picture but missed its pessimism entirely: ‘A rich cluster of the scrapings of Mr. Turner's iridescent palette: for it is evidently more the work of the palette-knife than the pencil. Yet how glorious is the general effect! Looked at from a considerable distance, it is discovered to be a fisherman's vessel, under a lofty crowd of canvass ... And like a thing of life she goes, so gay—so buoyant—so swift—that we almost feel the bright city to be lessening in the distance.’ For The Times of 9 May ‘The Sun appears to be a fishing vessel. It is a very silly sort of craft. The rest of the picture is fine.’

The canvas bears a Thomas Brown stamp of the form that came into use in about 1839.

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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