Joseph Mallord William Turner

Two Semi-Clad Women at a Window in Venice, Conversing with Men Below


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour and bodycolour on paper
Support: 236 × 315 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 20

Catalogue entry

The Turner scholar C.F. Bell annotated Finberg’s terse 1909 Inventory entry (‘The Lovers’): ‘Jessica at the window?’.1 He was presumably thinking of Turner’s painting Jessica, exhibited in 1830 (Tate T03887, displayed at Petworth House),2 which shows the single central figure facing the viewer through an open window which fills almost the whole picture; it was accompanied in the Royal Academy catalogue on that occasion by the text ‘Shylock – “Jessica, shut the window, I say” – The Merchant of Venice.’ This was a spurious quotation from Shakespeare’s play, albeit likely conflated from similar lines.3
In 1836 Turner had shown another painting, Juliet and her Nurse (private collection; engraved in 1842 as ‘St Mark’s Place, Venice’: Tate impression T05188),4 with the characters from Shakespeare’s Verona tragedy Romeo and Juliet incongruously overlooking the Piazza San Marco.5 Uncertainty as to the dates of Turner’s visit(s) to Venice between 1819 and 1840 (agreed comparatively recently as limited to one intermediate occasion, in 1833) has often led to various gouache works on grey and brown paper now associated with 1840, including nocturnal scenes with fireworks around the Bacino, being considered as studies for the painting.6 The 1837 oil of The Grand Canal, Venice (Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California)7 features a minor episode from The Merchant of Venice, and other subjects in the present subsection have resonances with Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice.8
Potentially, therefore, a Shakespearean connection might be feasible here. While noting a possible Merchant link, Andrew Wilton characterised the scene less romantically than Finberg, classifying it prosaically as ‘Two Women at a Window, below which stand Two Men’.9 Lindsay Stainton tentatively called it ‘The lovers: a scene from “The Merchant of Venice” (?)’, noting that Turner ‘was quite capable of imagining it being staged in the streets of Venice’, with a ‘resulting element of fantasy’.10 Anne Lyles subtitled it ‘? a Scene from “Romeo and Juliet”’, suggesting the well-known balcony scene in the play,11 ‘when Romeo, having spotted Juliet at a window, approaches to speak to her from below (in this study the figure lower left appears to be playing a musical instrument)’ with the ‘apparently older woman ... explained as her nurse, now wearing night dress.’12 Jan Piggott has suggested an alternative where the ‘woman with a maid at a window and a lover with musician below, ... may represent Jessica and Lorenzo’,13 although in the relevant scene from the Merchant where Jessica speaks to her future husband Lorenzo through a window prior to eloping, she is disguised as a boy.14
Undated MS note by Bell (died 1966) in copy of Finberg 1909, Prints and Drawings Room, Tate Britain, II, p.1027; the 1909 title was unchanged in Finberg 1930, p.176.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.186–7 no.333, pl.333 (colour).
See ibid., p.186.
Ibid., pp.215–17 no.365, pl.369 (colour).
See Warrell 2003, pp.71, 73.
See for example Alexander J. Finberg, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A. Second Edition, Revised, with a Supplement, by Hilda F. Finberg, revised ed., Oxford 1961, p.356.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.219–20 no.368, pl.373 (colour).
See Wilton 1974, p.157.
Stainton 1985, p.47.
Romeo and Juliet, act 2, scene 2.
Lyles 1992, p.68.
Piggott 2001, p.290.
Merchant of Venice, act 2, scene 6.
Bockemühl 1993, p.50.
Joll 1999, p.7.
Warrell 2003, p.133.
Ibid., and p.138; see also Warrell 2012, p.135, and Costello 2012, p.176.
Warrell 2003, p.138.
Shanes 1997, p.99.
‘Appendix: The papers used for Turner’s Venetian Watercolours’ (1840, section 9) in Warrell 2003, p.259; see also see also 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.111; and Warrell 2003, p.259, sections 10 and 11, for other likely Italian (possibly Fabriano) brown papers.
Ibid., section 9.

Matthew Imms
September 2018

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