Joseph Mallord William Turner

Two Women with a Letter


Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1219 × 914 mm
frame: 1430 × 1112 × 80 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

Here, Turner seems to be working towards a romantic or literary subject akin to his Shakespearean Jessica which was exhibited in 1830 and is exactly the same size. Both works are in a style indebted to Rembrandt, and Turner could also have been exploring parallels with exotic women painted by Rembrandt. Moreover the narrative being developed here, seemingly of a letter concealed by one woman from another, may have been associated with that of his earlier Rembrandt's Daughter, in which the painter interrupts his daughter while she is reading a love letter.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

[from] Nos. 444–9: Figure Subjects and Interiors associated with Petworth and East Cowes Castle, c. 1830–7

THESE works, none of which were exhibited by Turner, nor therefore given titles by him, have all been associated with Petworth since they were inventoried in the twentieth century, partly because of their similarity to the Petworth interiors with figures painted in body colour on blue paper (CCXLIV) and partly because they relate to such exhibited pictures associated with Petworth as Jessica, Lord Percy under Attainder and Watteau Study (Nos. 333 [T03887], 338 [N00515] and 340 [N00514]). It has recently been discovered by Patrick Youngblood, however, that at least one of these paintings, that formerly known as Music Party, Petworth (No. 447 [N03550]), shows an interior at East Cowes Castle. In fact the origins of this picture are even more complex; see the entry for this work. It is probably a mistake to attach these works too closely to any specific location, though Turner's imagination was clearly stimulated by the social life at these two houses in which, through his friendship with Lord Egremont and John Nash, he was particularly at home.

The dating of these works also depends on that of the paintings mentioned above, which were exhibited in 1830 and 1831, together with further scenes of figures in interiors such as Pilate washing his Hands, also exhibited in 1830 (No. 332 [N00510]), and Shadrach, Meshech and Abednego, exhibited in 1832 (No. 346 [N00517]). Rembrandt's Daughter, exhibited in 1827 (No. 238), and Boccaccio, exhibited the following year and also associated with East Cowes Castle (No. 244 [N00507]), are perhaps slightly less advanced in style than these unfinished interiors which seem to form a series painted over a number of years up to 1837, the year that Lord Egremont's death bought an end to Turner's association with Petworth (see under No. 449 [N01988]). All, save No. 444 [N05511], reflect a renewed interest in the work of Rembrandt, seen with Turner's own emphasis on light and colour.

Lit. Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, pp. 44–5; Gowing 1966, p. 36; Wilton 1979, pp. 208–10; Youngblood 1983, pp. 16–17.

448. [N05501] Two Women with a Letter c. 1835


Canvas, 48 × 36 (122 × 91·5)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1947.

Lit. Davies 1946, p. 161; Rothenstein 1949, p. 22, colour pl. 12; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, pp. 45, 76, pl. 93; Lindsay 1966, p. 179; Maurice Guillaud in exh. cat., Paris 1981–2, pp. 328–32, colour pl. 672.

As in the case of Music at East Cowes Castle (No. 447 [N03550]) this is a development of the theme of the drawings in bodycolour of life at Petworth, though no actual room there can be identified. The handling, bolder and with thicker paint than in Music at East Cowes Castle, suggests a slightly later date. The concentration on the back of the neck and the high-swept hair-style of the foremost girl suggests a possible influence from Fuseli. The subject, a bit difficult to make out, seems to be of a girl seated in a high leather-backed chair while her companion teases her by concealing a letter behind her back.

The figure seen from behind may have been developed from the same drawing in the ‘Seine and Paris’ sketchbook as that apparently lying behind the composition of Music at East Cowes Castle (CCLIV-24; see No. 447 [N03550]).

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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