Joseph Mallord William Turner

Undine Giving the Ring to Massaniello, Fisherman of Naples

exhibited 1846

In Tate Britain

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 791 × 791 mm
frame: 1025 × 1025 × 123 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

In this painting, Turner illustrates a scene from ‘Undine’, a fairy tale by German writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, published in 1811. Undine, a water spirit, was born without a soul, but she can gain one by marrying Huldebrand, a knight. The otherworldly light and dreamlike figures reflect the nature of the story. It was very popular throughout the 19th century and inspired many writers, including Hans Christian Andersen.

Gallery label, July 2020

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Catalogue entry

424. [N00549] Undine giving the Ring to Massaniello, Fisherman of Naples Exh. 1846


Canvas, 31 1/8 × 31 1/8 (79 × 79)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (44, ‘Masaniello’ 2'6 5/8" × 2'6 5/8"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1905.

Exh. R.A. 1846 (384); Edinburgh 1968 (16).

Lit. Ruskin 1857 (1903–12, xiii, p. 167); Thornbury 1862, i, p. 349; ii, p. 196; 1877, pp. 399, 467; W.P. Frith, My Autobiography and Reminiscences, 1887, i, pp. 131–3; Bell 1901, p. 155 no. 258; Armstrong 1902, p. 234; MacColl 1920, p. 25; Davies 1946, p. 186; Clare 1951, p. 117; Finberg 1961, pp. 413, 510 no. 576; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 72; Gage 1969, pp. 194, 259–60 n. 83; Reynolds 1969, pp. 198–200, pl. 173; Stuckey 1976, pp. 155–75, pl. 1; Finley 1979, pp. 685–95, pl. 9 and colour detail on cover; Wallace 1979, pp. 114–15, pl. 16; Wilton 1979, pp. 165, 198–203, 216, 222, pl. 236.

Almost certainly painted as the companion to The Angel standing in the Sun (No. 425, q.v.[N00550]); the colours are complementary. Undine had no accompanying text in the R.A. catalogue, unless, as has been suggested, the second of the two texts given for the other work, that from Samuel Rogers' Voyage of Columbus, should in fact have applied to this one. The sources of the subject were probably two stage productions that Turner could have seen in London, Auber's opera La Muette de Portici which ran from 1829 to 1835 and had been revived in 1845 (Deshayes's ballet version of this, Masaniello, had run from 1829 to 1834 and had been revived in 1838), and Jules Perrot's ballet Ondine, which ran from 1843 to 1848. In the latter Ondine entices the revolutionary fisherman Matteo into the sea.

Charles Stuckey, accepting that the companion picture in some way reflects Ruskin's identification of Turner as the angel of Revelation (see No. 425 [N00550]), suggests that Turner's choice of Undine and Masaniello as a subject, and indeed the pairing of the two pictures, in part embodies an attack on the Reverend John Eagles, one of Turner's sharpest critics; in Blackwood's Magazine for October 1843 Eagles had in fact attacked Ruskin's identification of Turner as the angel. Eagles had referred to Undine in the course of earlier criticisms of Turner and had also, in 1835, singled out Francis Danby's sketch of ‘the Fisherman of the Arabian Tales’ for special praise. Eagles frequently praised Danby at Turner's expense, though in fact he was one of the few younger artists by whom Turner was impressed (see No. 420 [N00548]). Masaniello may have been chosen because of his rumoured friendship with the poet-painter Salvator Rosa; Maclise had exhibited Salvator painting his friend Masaniello in 1838. In addition, Masaniello's real name being Tomasso Aniello, Turner may have been playing with the association of his own name with ‘ring’, of which ‘aniello’ is the Italian translation. Finley suggests that there is also an allusion to Louis-Philippe, the object of a number of assassination attempts, the most recent on 16 April 1846. Wallace sees a parallel between Masaniello and Christ, and the painting as a reflection of Turner's pessimism over the possibility of Christian salvation, also found, for Wallace, in the companion painting.

While some of the critics coupled the two pictures together (see under No. 425 [N00550]) others did not. The Art Union for June 1846 supports the identification of the sources of the subjects suggested above: ‘On seeing the picture and the first word of the title we thought that this gentleman had worthily betaken himself to the charming romance of De la Motte Fouque; but Hulbrand's “wife and water” has nothing to do with Massaniello [sic]. We must, therefore, be content to refer the picture to some ignoble ballet’. The review concludes, ‘In the picture of Undine we see a composition intended by its author only for a momentary sight’; whoever thinks it is ‘to be dwelt upon falls into that vulgar error which leads to general condemnation’ of Turner's works. The Almanack of the Month, in a review accompanied by a sketch apparently done from memory, put it rather differently: ‘“Undine”... is a very fair specimen of this slap-dash school [already caricatured apropos “Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus”, see No. 423 [N00546]], which we admire for its extreme boldness. The audacity of the thing is truly wonderful. We know the Doge of Venice used to marry the Adriatic, and throw a ring into it, but we were not aware that one of these rings had been picked up by Undine, and given to Masaniello.’ The Times for 6 May did ‘not expect that any but the ultra-Turnerites will admire’ this picture, which it described as ‘remarkable for that favourite white light of Turner's vivid contrast to the dark blue sky, with its mass of red flame (probably Vesuvius).’

The painter W.P. Frith has an anecdote about one of Turner's typical run-ins with a neighbouring picture at the Royal Academy, in this case by his friend David Roberts. ‘When first placed on the wall, Masaniello's queer figure was relieved by a pale gray sky, the whole effect being almost as gray and quiet as Roberts's picture ... Both he and Roberts stood upon boxes, and worked silently at their respective pictures... “Masaniello” was rapidly undergoing a treatment which was very damaging to its neighbour without a compensating improvement to itself. The gray sky had become an intense blue, and was every instant becoming so blue that even Italy could scarcely be credited with it.’ Despite Roberts's remonstrances, ‘to this hour “Masaniello” remains...with the bluest sky ever seen in a picture, and never seen out of one’.

Turner seems to have been much more undecided on the final shape he wanted for this picture and No. 425 [N00550] than he had been in similar cases in earlier years (see Nos. 382 [N00525], 394–5, 399–400 [N00528-N00529] and 404–5 [N00531-N00532]). The top-left corner of Undine seems to have been finished off with an octagonal format in mind but at the last minute he added a fish in the bottom right-hand corner, necessitating a square frame. Similarly at the last moment he added a flask in the bottom right-hand corner of No. 425 [N00550], though the composition as a whole seems to have been envisaged as a circular one.

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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