Joseph Mallord William Turner

Venice, the Bridge of Sighs

exhibited 1840

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 686 × 914 mm
frame: 868 × 1171 × 129 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

One of the most famous landmarks in Venice, the Bridge of Sighs connects the Doge’s Palace on the left with the prisons of the Palazzo dei Prigioni to the right. When Turner exhibited the painting in 1840, he accompanied it with lines based on Byron’s poem, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage:
‘I stood upon a bridge, a palace and
A prison on each hand.’ 

Indeed it was Byron who allegedly coined the name of the bridge, deriving its title from the mournful image of convicts taking their last glimpse of the city before being led down to the darkness of the cells.

Gallery label, February 2010

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Catalogue entry

383. [N00527] Venice, the Bridge of Sighs Exh. 1840


Canvas, 24 × 36 (61 × 91·5)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (one of 18–21, 36–40; see below); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1961.

Exh. R.A. 1840 (55); R.A. 1974–5 (530, repr.).

Lit. Ruskin 1857 (1903–12, xiii, pp. 158–9); Thornbury 1862, i, p. 346; 1877, p. 465; Bell 1901, pp. 138–9 no. 219; Armstrong 1902, p. 234; Finberg 1930, pp. 103, 112, 132, 156, pl. 19; Davies 1946, pp. 151, 186; Davies 1959, pp. 97–8; Finberg 1961, pp. 379, 505 no. 531; Lindsay 1966, pp. 174, 246 no. 34; Gage 1980, p. 176.

Exhibited in 1840 with the following lines based on Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto iv, verse I:

‘I stood upon a bridge, a palace and
A prison on each hand.’—Byron

In Byron's original text the lines read,

I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;
A palace and a prison on each hand:...

The lines show that Turner saw even the beauties of Venice as a sham, concealing the grim realities on which her departed glories had depended.

Most of the critics of the 1840 R.A. exhibition were so shattered by Turner's other contributions that they failed to mention the two Venetian scenes, this picture and the Venice from the Canale della Giudecca, Chiesa di S Maria della Salute, &c (No. 384). Even the critic of the Spectator, who did notice them on 16 May, could not forbear to include them in his general condemnation of ‘mere freaks of chromomania’, the Venetian pictures being included with their ‘sundry patches of white and nankeen, with a bundle of gayer colours... intended to represent buildings and vessels’.

Nos. 383 [N00527], 402 [N00535], 406 [N00534], 411 [N00539], 413 [N00540], 416–19 [N00541-N00544] appear in the 1854 Schedule as nos:

18 and 19, ‘2 Views of Venice in one frame’ each 3'0" × 2'0";
20 and 21, ‘2 d0 d0 d0’ each 3'0" × 2'0";
36 and 37, ‘2 pictures of Venice in one frame’ each 3'0" × 2'0";
38, ‘View in Venice’, 3'0" × 2'0";
39 and 40, each ‘Ditto’ and each 3'0" × 2'0".

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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