Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Vision of Jacob’s Ladder (?)


Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1232 × 1880 mm
frame: 1292 × 1939 × 56 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Catalogue entry

435. [N05507] The Vision of Jacob's Ladder c. 1830?


Canvas, 48 1/2 × 74 (123 × 188)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (256, ‘1 (Scriptural subject [)]’ 6'2 1/2" × 4'0"; identified 1946 by chalk number on back); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1951.

Exh. R.A. 1974–5 (484).

Lit. Davies 1946, pp. 162, 190; Ziff 1980, p. 171; Shanes 1981, p. 46.

Listed in the Schedule of the Turner Bequest, no. 266, merely as ‘Scriptural Subject 6'2 1/2" × 4'0"’, but almost certainly the Vision of Jacob's Ladder, Genesis xxviii, 10–12, though Jacob is accompanied by his family and is being addressed by an angel rather than by the Lord God. Martin Davies describes this as a very early work but in fact it seems to have been worked on over a considerable period. The basic forms, and particularly the craggy hill in the centre, are close to such paintings as The Goddess of Discord choosing the Apple of Contention in the Garden of the Hesperides and Fall of the Rhine at Schaffhausen, both exhibited in 1806 (Nos. 57 [N00477] and 61) but the impressionistic technique and the way in which the whole picture is illuminated by the apparition suggest a much later date, probably close to the Vision of Medea (No. 293 [N00513]) which also reflects a return to earlier ideas and Venetian painting. The general effect owes much to Titian but the flicked-in forms of the angels are still closer to Tintoretto.

John Gage has kindly drawn the compiler's attention to a passage in the ‘Catalogue of the Pictures Bequeathed to ... Dulwich’ in the Annals of the Fine Arts, i, 1817, pp. 387 ff., referring to the picture of Jacob's Dream then attributed to Rembrandt: ‘Instead of a material ladder of substantial steps, on which well-dressed ladies and gentlemen, with wings on their shoulders, have been walking up and down like waiters ... we behold a mysterious, solemn twilight, on which from a bright refulgence in the heavens, a stream of light beams an immensity from earth to heaven ...’. This description could have pointed the way to Turner's own magical treatment of the subject. Washington Allston had painted a picture of the same subject for Lord Egremont in 1817, exhibiting it at the Royal Academy in 1819 and again at the British Institution in 1825.

Since the first edition of this catalogue Jerrold Ziff has suggested that the first stage of this painting was even earlier than here suggested, c. 1800–2 and that its intended subject may have been the first Plague of Egypt, the subject of a drawing inscribed ‘Water Turned to Blood’ in the ‘Calais Pier’ sketchbook (LXXXI-42 and 43); the size is close to that of The Fifth Plague of Egypt, exhibited in 1800 (No. 13). Shanes has suggested rather that the underlying picture is the lost Army of the Medes destroyed in the Desart by a Whirlwind, exhibited in 1801 (No. 15).

This painting not only shared the general neglect of most of the works kept in Turner's studio but was even turned to the wall and used as an impromptu palette. The dabs of paint were only removed when the picture was restored at the Tate Gallery in the 1970s.

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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