J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner A Nude Woman Reclining on a Bed, with another Figure or Figures, ?Venice 1840

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
A Nude Woman Reclining on a Bed, with another Figure or Figures, ?Venice 1840
Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 17
Gouache and watercolour on grey wove paper, 216 x 284 mm
Stamped in black ‘CCCXVIII – 17’ bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
The Turner scholar C.F. Bell annotated Finberg’s uncharacteristically vivid 1909 Inventory entry (‘The Murder’): ‘Desdemona ?’.1 The work was has been exhibited variously as ‘Venice: Murder Scene (from Othello)’,2 as ‘Murder Scene, Venice’,3 and less sensationally as ‘Venice: A scene at the play’.4 It has also appeared more prosaically as ‘Venice, Interior of a Bedroom’,5 and in more recent years less specifically as ‘Reclining nude on a bed’.6
At the culmination of Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice (albeit largely set in Cyprus), Othello smothers his wife Desdemona, on a misguided suspicion of adultery; her maidservant Emilia enters and speaks with her as she dies.7 Potentially, the vividly pink figure8 reclining on white sheets, against a shadowy recess emphasised by a suggestion of bed-curtains drawn back to the left, could represent Desdemona, and the bereft-seeming woman loosely defined looking out in the foreground Emilia, with the taller shape beyond her possibly Othello. While observing that ‘the nudity of the figure on the bed is perhaps not consistent with such an interpretation’, Andrew Wilton nevertheless suggested that there might be a connection to an actual theatrical performance, mentioning a technically similar scene of women at a window and a theatre interior also included in the present grouping (Tate D32237, D32239; Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 18, 20).9
Wilton also noted the ‘no doubt accidental’ similarity of a pencil drawing of figures in a bedroom in the Marine Dabblers sketchbook of about 1829–30 (Tate D22554; Turner Bequest CCXLI 79a);10 see also many dimly defined bedroom scenes in the three small sketchbooks included in the ‘Erotica and Improvisations c.1834–6’ section of this catalogue. While noting the potential Shakespearean associations,11 Ian Warrell has discussed the particular erotic allure of Venice at this time, and has related the semi-clad women in D32239 to the conspicuous prostitution prevalent in the city,12 suggesting that whether in reality or the artist’s fantasy: ‘Matters seem to have proceeded from this introduction, for the [present] work shows a reclining nude on white sheets, possibly sprawled in post-coital abandon’.13
If there is an Othello connection, then there seems a slight possibility that another bedroom scene in this grouping (Tate D32228; Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 9), showing a couple, might be intended as some sort of precursor. See also Tate D36089 and D36259 (Turner Bequest CCCLXIV 243, 392), two further shadowy figure compositions included here.
Undated MS note by Bell (died 1966) in copy of Finberg 1909, Prints and Drawings Room, Tate Britain, II, p.1027.
Exhibition of Turner Watercolours for the Huntingdon [sic] Art Gallery, p.4.
Gowing 1966, p.62.
Wilton 1975, p.146.
Croft-Murray 1963, p.21.
Warrell 2003, p.272; Chambers and Paton 2016, p.215.
Othello, act 5, scene 2.
See Costello 2012, p.176.
Wilton 1974, p.157; see also Wilton 1975, p.146, Powell 1984, pp.324, 529 note 107, and Powell 1987, pp.153, 207 note 83.
Wilton 1974, p.125.
See Warrell 2003b, p.26.
See Warrell 2003a, p.133, Warrell 2003b, p.26, and Warrell 2012, pp.134–5.
Warrell 2003a, p.138; see also Warrell 2003b, p.26, and Warrell 2012, p.135.
Technical notes:
This is one of numerous 1840 Venice works Ian Warrell has noted as being on ‘Grey wove [paper], with a textured surface, produced by an unknown maker’ mostly measuring around 218 x 285 mm:1 Tate D32222, D32234–D32236, D32243–D32244 (Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 3, 15–17, 24, 25).
‘Appendix: The papers used for Turner’s Venetian Watercolours’ (1840, section 12) in Warrell 2003, p.259.
Blank; inscribed by Turner in ink ‘21’ (unconfirmed; not available for examination at time of writing). For Turner’s ink numbering of many similar sheets, see the Introduction to the tour.

Matthew Imms
September 2018

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘A Nude Woman Reclining on a Bed, with another Figure or Figures, ?Venice 1840 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, September 2018, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, December 2019, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-a-nude-woman-reclining-on-a-bed-with-another-figure-or-r1196472, accessed 04 June 2020.