Joseph Mallord William Turner

Watteau Study by Fresnoy’s Rules

exhibited 1831

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Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on oak
Support: 400 × 692 mm
frame: 745 × 1040 × 160 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

This painting is a tribute to the eighteenth-century French painter, Antoine Watteau. Turner exhibited it in 1831, as the companion piece to Lucy, Countess of Carlisle… shown on the far left. It illustrates a colouristic principle of the theorist CA du Fresnoy, that white ‘may bear an object back, or bring it near’.

Watteau appears in the centre, surrounded by admirers and examples of his work which Turner knew, including Les Plaisirs du Bal (the large painting on the left, now in Dulwich College Gallery) and La Lorgneuse (‘The Flirt’, the smaller framed picture) owned by his friend, the poet Samuel Rogers.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

340. [N00514] Watteau Study by Fresnoy's Rules Exh. 1831


Oil, approx. 15 3/4 × 27 1/4 (40 × 69·5), on oak panel, 16 × 27 9/16 (40·5 × 70); original framing members, 20 × 31 3/4 (51 × 80·5)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (23, ‘Watteau Painting’ 2'3 1/2" × 1'3 1/2"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1905.

Exh. R.A. 1831 (298); R.A. 1974–5 (334).

Lit. Thornbury 1862, i, p. 320; 1877, p. 447; Bell 1901, p. 117 no. 175; Armstrong 1902, p. 236; MacColl 1920, pp. 16–17; Davies 1946, p. 186; Finberg 1961, pp. 326–7, 491 no. 361; Herrmann 1963, p. 24; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, pp. 42, 45, pl. 81; Gage 1965, pp. 75–6; Lindsay 1966, pp. 108–9; Gage 1969, pp. 91–2, 170; Reynolds 1969, pp. 138–41, pl. 124; Herrmann 1975, p. 38, pl. 136; Wilton 1979, pp. 205–8; Finley 19792, pp. 241–7, pl. 40; Youngblood 1983, p. 17.

Number 5 on Turner's list of his R.A. exhibits for 1831 and exhibited with the following lines:

‘White, when it shines with unstained lustre clear,
May bear an object back, or bring it near.’

Fresnoy's Art of Painting, 496.

The quotation comes from William Mason's translation of Charles Alphonse du Fresnoy's De Arte Graphica, first published with annotations by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1783 and re-issued in The Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, edited by Edmond Malone, 1797. The complete section xxxiv, ‘of White and Black’, reads:

White, when it shines with unstain'd lustre clear
May bear an object back or bring it near.
Aided by black, it to the front aspires;
That aid withdrawn, it distantly retires;
But black unmix'd of darkest midnight hue,
Still calls each object nearer to the view.

Turner illustrates this theory with a tribute to Watteau, just as the companion Lord Percy under Attainder (No. 338 [N00515]) was a tribute to Van Dyck. Among the pictures shown in the background are Watteau's Les Plaisirs du Bal (which was already in the Dulwich College Picture Gallery), but in reverse as in Gerard Scotin's engraving and greatly enlarged, and La Lorgneuse which then belonged to Turner's friend Samuel Rogers. For a more complex and subtle interpretation of this pair of pictures see Finley, loc. cit.

See No. 338 [N00515] for Turner's use of a cupboard door as the support for this picture. Like that picture Watteau Study has an iconographic link with Petworth in that the scene of an artist at work in a room with a number of bystanders is most clearly paralleled among the Petworth body-colours on blue paper, though these are, of course, contemporary scenes (e.g., CCXLIV-102; repr. exh. cat., R.A. 1974–5, p. 114 no. 358).

As in the case of the companion picture contemporary critics were on the whole surprisingly complimentary, showing an appreciation of Turner's special effects of colour. Who but Turner, asked the Library of the Fine Arts for June 1831, could have painted this picture ‘with its almost impossible effects produced on principles directly opposed to those generally adopted, his lights merging in depths, his depths thrown deeper by his lights, and this all in a mere sketch and apparently produced without effort?’ The Athenaeum for 21 May called it ‘of the wildest of this artist's colouring fancies’ but went on, ‘What a trifle in the tone would destroy the beauty. We have not seen this picture commended, but to our taste it is full of delicacy and beauty and is a rich gem.’ Alas, the picture can no longer be restored to its original condition.

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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