Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Sun Rising or Setting over Water


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 245 × 346 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXIII 210

Display caption

While Constable is well known for his studies of clouds made during the 1820s, many pages in Turner's notebooks record this kind of subject as an ever-present concern of his work. Ruskin wrote that the scientific delineation of 'the aspects of sunset and sunrise, with all their attendant phenomena of cloud and mist' was a central obsession in contemporary art. It is easy to see in these studies how Turner was able to recreate the effects of clouded skies in the finished watercolours for projects such as the 'Rivers of England' and the 'Picturesque Views in England and Wales'.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

The central sun here, reserved as a blank disk of white paper, appears to be low over water, probably the sea with what may be a stretch of sandy beach in the foreground, all suffused with the ‘reddish colour of the sky’ while leaving ‘the source of the light pure’, as Ian Warrell has described it.1 Gerald Wilkinson has noted a ‘controlled brilliance achieved without primary colours’.2 Finberg thought it a sunrise,3 but it has also been exhibited and reproduced as a sunset.
Andrew Wilton has observed that the ‘rich colour and full-bodied paint suggest a date in the 1820s, rather than later’, comparing this study with Tate D25334 (Turner Bequest CCLXIII 212), associated with the ‘Little Liber’ series4 (see ‘Little Liber c.1823–6’ in the present catalogue); Lindsay Stainton has concurred, noting the 1823 watermark of a similar work,5 presumably Tate D25186 (Turner Bequest CCLXIII 64), a variation on the sun over water theme.
In regarding this sheet as dating from a little later in the 1820s, Ian Warrell has noted that such studies, with their ‘understanding gained through the kind of colour chiaroscuro’ seen here, informed the ‘richness’6 of the skies in paintings of the period such as Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus – Homer’s Odyssey, exhibited in 1829 (Turner Bequest, National Gallery, London),7 as well as informing the atmospheric effects of topographical watercolours in the Rivers of England and Picturesque Views in England and Wales series of the 1820s and 1830s.8
For other ‘colour beginnings’ focusing on a centrally placed sun, see the Introduction to this subsection.9
Warrell 1991, p.40.
Wilkinson 1975, p.140.
See Finberg 1909, II, p.830.
Wilton 1975, p.71.
See Stainton 1981, p.99.
Warrell 1991, p.11.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.183–5 no.330, pl.331 (colour).
Warrell 1991, p.41.
See also Warrell 1991, p.40.
Blank; inscribed by John Ruskin in pencil ‘AB 79 P | O’ top left, upside down; inscribed in pencil ‘CCLXIII | 210’ bottom right; inscribed in pencil ‘CCLXIII. 210’ top right, upside down.
The bottom edge appears dusty and darkened.

Matthew Imms
March 2016

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