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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Christ and the Woman of Samaria c.1808

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Christ and the Woman of Samaria circa 1808
Turner Bequest CXVIII O
Watercolour on off-white wove writing paper, 204 x 263 mm
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram bottom right
Etching and mezzotint by Turner and Thomas Hodgetts, ‘CHRIST AND THE WOMAN OF SAMARIA’, published Turner, 1 January 1819
In his only New Testament subject for the Liber Studiorum, Turner represented the episode from St John’s Gospel, where Christ meets a Samaritan woman at a well and speaks with her, metaphorically expressing His purpose:
If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water. ... Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.1
As Gillian Forrester has suggested,2 Turner may have derived his basic structure from the painting A Roman Road (Dulwich Picture Gallery, London), then thought to be by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) but now considered a copy after a lost original. He certainly knew the work, which had possibly been in the collection of William Beckford, his early patron, until 1802. The fundamental similarity lies in the road which recedes to a central vanishing point in each composition; other elements such as seated figures, large blocks of stone, trees and a distant, classical townscape are common to both but in entirely different arrangements.
Ian Warrell has proposed the indirect influence of Claude Lorrain, the artist more frequently associated with Turner’s project through his own Liber Veritatis (see general Liber introduction), relating the arch and tower in the distance to those Turner sketched at Ligny-en-Barrois in the Meuse department of Lorraine, on his way back through France during his first Continental tour in 1802. Turner had by-passed Chamagne, Claude’s birthplace in the Vosges further to the east, but would have been aware of the region’s association with its artist namesake, and ‘may well have been looking specifically for motifs that could have inspired his predecessor.’3
Of four sketches of Ligny in the Rhine, Strassburg and Oxford sketchbook (Tate D04748–D04751; Turner Bequest LXXVII 13–16), the second and third focus on the classical triumphal arch, with low buildings and ruins in the foreground; D04749, the more distant view, also shows a tower to the left of the arch,4 while the general arrangement of the arch, road, buildings and trees in D04750 is quite close to the Liber design, though it is not possible at present to establish more than a fortuitous link. Although Stopford Brooke criticised Turner’s conception, apparently without ‘any personal religious thought’, he admired the setting: ‘The entrance to the town is a reminiscence of a gate in the Aurelian wall, and the architectural blocks are like those scattered through the gardens of the Roman palaces.’5 However, he disliked the insertion of naturalistic trees in such an ‘artificial’ composition – ‘a Nemesis which falls on Turner for imitating Claude.’6
The composition is recorded, as ‘Woman of Samaria’, in a list of ‘Historical’ subjects in the Liber Notes (2) sketchbook (Tate D12171; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 31) these notes (D12160–D12171; CLIV (a) 25a–31) were apparently made between 1808 and as late as 1818.7 It seems to be noted again, as ‘[?Woman ...]’, in a list (now rubbed and difficult to decipher) of Liber works in progress around 1817–18 inside the back cover of the Aesacus and Hesperie sketchbook (Tate D40933; Turner Bequest CLXIX);8 and, as ‘Reynolds ... Woman of Samaria’, with various other Liber subjects in the Farnley sketchbook (Tate D11998; Turner Bequest CLIII 2a). The latter list was possibly complied during Turner’s visit to Farnley in November 1818 and is headed ‘Liber Studiorum Plates out Jany 1 1819’.9
The Liber Studiorum etching and mezzotint engraving, etched by Turner and engraved by S.W. Reynolds, bears the publication date 1 January 1819 and was issued to subscribers as ‘CHRIST AND THE WOMAN OF SAMARIA’ in part 14 (Rawlinson/Finberg nos.67–71;10 see also Tate D08167 and D08168; Turner Bequest CXVIII M, Vaughan Bequest CXVIII N). Tate holds impressions of the preliminary outline etching (Tate A01148) and the published engraving (A01149). It is one of eight published Liber Studiorum subjects in Turner’s ‘Historical’ category (see also Tate D08106, D08120, D08139, D08144, D08149, D08162, D08166; CXVI E, CXVII P, CXVIII H, L, Vaughan Bequest CXVI S, CXVII L, U).
Turner may not have found his subject ‘inspiring’ in this instance,11 and seems to have waited about a decade to have it engraved and published, but he apparently returned to the theme in later years – following his introduction to the real Italian landscape – in an unfinished oil painting now known as Landscape: Christ and the Woman of Samaria, of about 1825 (Tate N01875),12 devising an entirely different composition.
John 4:10, 13–14.
Forrester 1996, p.133.
Ian Warrell in Warrell, Chavanne and Kitson 2002, p.188.
Reproduced ibid., p.65, fig.41.
Rev. Stopford [Augustus] Brooke, Notes on the Liber Studiorum of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., revised ed., London 1885, pp.246–7.
Ibid., p.247.
Forrester 1996, pp.161–3 (transcribed).
Ibid., p.163 (transcribed).
Ibid., p.160 (transcribed).
Rawlinson 1878, pp.135–41; 1906, pp.159–66; 1924, pp.265–84.
Forrester 1996, p.133.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, p.276 no.433, pl.438 (colour).
Technical notes:
There is no pencil work. The lights in the sky were washed out; there is evidence of work with the fingers, with prominent prints to the left of Christ and along the right-hand edge. Reserved whites have been enhanced by rubbing-out, and a very dry wash used for the trees, skipped over paper to give white reserves. Wet washes are limited to the umber shade only. The overall colour is made up of mixed browns, mainly a warm red, due to the presence of Indian red pigment, with sepia and umber shades.1
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files.
Blank, save for inscription.
Inscribed in pencil ‘6’ centre left
Stamped in black ‘[crown] | N•G | CXVIII – O’ bottom left
The sheet is extensively abraded where it was formerly stuck down.

Matthew Imms
August 2008

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘Christ and the Woman of Samaria c.1808 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, August 2008, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, December 2012, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-christ-and-the-woman-of-samaria-r1131772, accessed 23 June 2024.