Joseph Mallord William Turner

War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet

exhibited 1842

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 794 × 794 mm
frame: 1030 × 1025 × 120 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

This scene shows French military leader Napoleon in exile on the island of St Helena. He had been sent there after being defeated by a British-led army in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon died in St Helena in 1821. This work was painted in the year his ashes were returned to France. The image does not appear to celebrate or condemn Napoleon, but instead suggests the pointlessness of war. The isolated uniformed body appears out of place in its surroundings. The red background invokes the trauma of battle. In verses attached to the canvas, Turner refers to the sunset as a ‘sea of blood’.

Gallery label, April 2019

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Catalogue entry

400. [N00529] War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet Exh. 1842


Canvas, 31 1/4 × 31 1/4 (79·5 × 79·5)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (43, ‘The Sea Lympit’ 2'7" × 2'7"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1905.

Exh. R.A. 1842 (353); Paris 1983–4 (71, repr. in colour).

Lit. Ruskin 1843, 1860 and 1857 (1903–12, iii, pp. 273, 286, 297, 364, 474; vii, pp. 157–8, 435 n., 438 n.; xiii, pp. 160–61); Thornbury 1862, i, pp. 346–7; ii, p. 196; 1877, pp. 127, 171, 399, 465–6; Hamerton 1879, pp. 292–3; Bell 1901, p. 145 no. 235; Armstrong 1902, pp. 153–4, 225; Davies 1946, p. 186; Clark 1949, p. 106; Finberg 1961, pp. 390, 507 no. 549; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, pp. 68–70; Lindsay 1966, pp. 190, 202–3; 19662, p. 52; Brill 1969, pp. 24–30, repr. p. 24; Gage 1969, pp. 194, 260 n. 83; Reynolds 1969, p. 187, pl. 164; Stuckey 1976, p. 175; Topliss 1978, pp. 90–1, pl. 5; Wallace 1979, pp. 112–13, pl. 11; Wilton 1979, pp. 200–4, 210–12, 216, pl. 229; Wilton 1980, pp. 76–7, 143, pl. xv; Paulson 1982, pp. 65–6.

Exhibited in 1842 with the lines:

‘Ah! thy tent-formed shell is like
A soldier's nightly bivouac, alone
Amidst a sea of blood                
                    but you can join your comrades.’

Fallacies of Hope.

Ruskin, who seems to have valued this picture more highly than its companion Peace—Burial at Sea (No. 399), commented ‘The lines which Turner gave with this picture are very important, being the only verbal expression of that association in his mind of sunset colour with blood...the conceit of Napoleon's seeing a resemblance in the limpet's shell to a tent was thought trivial by most people at the time; it may be so (though not to my mind); the second thought, that even this poor wave-washed disk had power and liberty, denied to him, will hardly, I think, be mocked at.’ In Modern Painters Ruskin had expressed his particular liking for ‘the glowing scarlet and gold of Napoleon and Slave Ship [No. 385]’.

The press was universal in its condemnation of this picture, even Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine for July 1842, which found a general improvement in Turner's exhibits as compared with previous years, dismissing War as ‘a greater absurdity than ever’. The figure of Napoleon was particularly criticised. ‘He is in black military boots’, wrote the critic in the Literary Gazette, 14 May, ‘the continuous reflection of which from his toes in the water give him the appearance of being erected upon two long black stilts, and the whole thing is ... truly ludicrous.’ In a ‘Supplement’ to The Times for 6 May the picture was dismissed as ‘an elongated Napoleon ... running to seed in a redhot atmosphere of brimstone and brickdust.’ The Athenaeum, 14 May, described Turner's War as ‘yet odder than his “Peace” In the midst of a canvas smeared with every shade of rose colour, crimson, vermillion, and orange, is set up a thing—man it assuredly is not—’, an ‘effigy of Napoleon rolled out to a colossal height ... Below the feet of the modern Prometheus lies something about the size of his cocked-hat, called in the Catalogue “a rock limpet”.’ For further criticism see under No. 399 [N00528].

Gage (exh. cat., Paris 1983–4) sees this picture as in part a commentary on B.R. Haydon's Napoleon Meditating at St. Helena, 1829, one of the many versions of which belonged to Samuel Rogers.

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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