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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Venice: Looking East towards San Pietro di Castello - Early Morning 1819

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Venice: Looking East towards San Pietro di Castello – Early Morning 1819
Turner Bequest CLXXXI 5
Watercolour on white wove paper, 223 x 287 mm
Inscribed by John Ruskin in red ink ‘5’ bottom right
Stamped in black ‘CLXXXI – 5’ bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
The subject of this evocative but at first sight somewhat generic evocation of the distant skyline of Venice has been a cause of speculation as to its topography (and consequently which end of the day might be represented) until its subject and thus its orientation were firmly established relatively recently.1 Finberg annotated his laconic 1909 Inventory title ‘Venice’ with ‘Lagoon’.2 In another copy he noted: ‘Salute in distance’.3 The Turner scholar C.F. Bell annotated another copy: ‘from the Giudecca looking east, sunrise’.4 Bell similarly annotated Finberg’s In Venice with Turner (1930): ‘From the Giudecca, looking East, sunrise? I cannot feel at all sure abt the locality of this subject’.5 Finberg later mused:
I am not quite sure of the subject ... but I think it is a view from the Fusina end of the Giudecca looking towards the basin of St. Mark. It is an evening effect with masses of pale grey clouds rising from the horizon, the loose clouds in the upper part of the sky catching the ruddy glow of the sun which is setting behind us on our right.6
In the most sustained speculative account, Lindsay Stainton called the view ‘puzzling’, declaring that there is ‘no point either within the area of Venice itself (such as the entrance to the Canale della Giudecca) or out on the Lagoon from which such a view can be seen’, suggesting that the spire on the left might be intended to evoke the campanile of San Marco (St Mark’s), with the Riva degli Schiavoni waterfront stretching east towards the Giardini Pubblici, albeit with many elisions or omissions, concluding that the this might be ‘an “ideal” view of the famous waterfront reconstructed from memory’ despite its apparent immediacy.7
Ian Warrell has since convincingly linked the skyline of the left-hand half of the view to a double-page pencil drawing in the smaller contemporary Venice to Ancona sketchbook (Tate D14526–D14527; Turner Bequest CLXXVI 20a–21),8 the first being inscribed with notes of colours and tones including ‘all the steeples blood red’. Warrell has observed ‘how Turner played with the positioning of bell towers and domes to produce a greater sense of recession’, while ‘the presence of rosy clouds perhaps indicates a moment just before sunrise’, which ‘could be a directly observed phenomenon’, albeit bearing in mind the annotations to the pencil sketch.9 He has suggested the ‘real or imagined vantage point’ as the Palazzo (or Ca’) Giustinian, on the north side of the entrance to the Grand Canal,10 apparently the viewpoint for the early morning views originally on adjacent pages of this sketchbook (D15254, D15256; Turner Bequest CLXXXI 4, 6), although the pencil sketch may have been made from a little way out on the waters around the Dogana. It is perhaps significant that there are moored boats and a passing gondola at the equivalent point in the pencil sketch to the slight but assured indications of boats and a landing stage in the foreground here.
Warrell has identified the dome and campanile in the distance towards the centre as those of the Basilica of San Pietro di Castello, on the eastern fringes of Venice, although a campanile to its right in the pencil sketch, probably that of Sant’Isepo (otherwise San Giuseppe), north of the Giardini Pubblici, is missing here, as is, more crucially, the Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore and its church; given the proportions of this composition compared with the pencil sketch and Turner’s tendency to laterally compress panoramic views, it might have been expected in the middle distance towards the right11 (compare its scale in D15254). Perhaps Turner sought to preserve the subtle sense of recession as the blue skyline fades towards the right without framing it with prominent architectural forms on the right too, the sharply defined silhouettes of what appear to be the campanili of Sant’Antonin’ and San Martino toward the left12 being sufficient to assist the repoussoir effect generated by the shifts between the various blues (for further discussion see the technical notes below).
Like the other three watercolours of Venice made on adjacent pages of the Como and Venice sketchbook (D15254, D15256, D15258; Turner Bequest CLXXXI 4, 6, 7), each depicting buildings across water under various seemingly directly observed effects of morning light, this one has attracted much comment in its own right and as part of that brief sequence; for extensive general discussion of the four Venetian watercolours, see the sketchbook’s Introduction.13 Martin Butlin has characterised Turner’s the present work as showing ‘a directness of vision unparalleled before the Impressionists’,14 while Andrew Wilton has called it ‘the most economical and understated of the group, yet it conjures up the breadth and splendour of the scene with unparalleled clarity’.15 Similarly, Lindsay Stainton has remarked that ‘this is the simplest and most understated, yet perhaps the one which most perfectly captures the evanescent beauty of the city seen from a distance’.16

Diane Perkins has noted how ‘primary colours are used in an unusually direct and economical way which nevertheless evokes the detailed skyline’,17 and Timothy Wilcox has addressed this fusion of deceptively simple means and topographical framework, whereby the ‘view, painted directly onto the dampened paper with no underdrawing, anticipates more clearly than any of the others Turner’s later response to the city’, and it ‘may conceivably have been made later, from memory’ since it ‘speaks of an experience crystallizing intellectually as the artist withdraws physically’, with the artist ‘adopting the method of organizing two-dimensional and three-dimensional space that would become a guiding principal after 1830’.18
Michael Bockemühl has compared the underlying structure of this composition with that of one of the elemental landscape ‘colour beginnings’ still remaining in the sketchbook (folio 10 recto; D15261), comprising bands of colour wash without any specific topographical development yet still evoking sky, water and land: ‘Both have a simple structure of broad bands of colour laid horizontally on top of each other. It would be possible to imagine a further application of paint and gentle outlines to the coloured ground’ of D15261. He has observed in the case of the present work ‘just how economical a depiction can be yet still convey the impression of a complete landscape structure. A very few clearly recognizable structural shapes suffice to give the other pointed and block-like brushmarks in the blue centre-silhouette the semblance of distant spires and buildings’, and although the freer brown strokes below evoke boats in the foreground to conventional emphasise a conventional perspectival effect, the compositional structure, delineated only by the sharp edges of colour rather than any pencil outlines and the colours themselves ‘complement each other’ in the creation of pictorial space.19 Thus Turner evoked ‘the world as he saw it through the effect and counter-effect of the various colours’.20
In 2008 the German-based Japanese painter and photographer Hiroyuki Masuyama (born 1968) produced an LED lightbox image based on the present work as one of a series reinterpreting Turner’s landscapes, combining the original composition with digitally layered photographic landscape and architectural elements.21
Earlier discussions and suggestions include Wilton 1983, p.218, Gage 1987, p.[51], Perkins 1990, p.36, and Wilcox 1990, p.33.
Undated MS note by A.J. Finberg (died 1939) in interleaved copy of Finberg 1909, Tate Britain Prints and Drawings Room, I, p.535.
Undated MS note by Finberg in copy of Finberg 1909, Tate Britain Prints and Drawings Room, I, p.535.
Undated MS note by C.F. Bell (died 1966) in copy of Finberg 1909, Tate Britain Prints and Drawings Room, I, p.535.
Undated MS note by Bell (before 1936) in copy of Finberg 1930, Prints and Drawings Study Room, British Museum, London, p.167, as transcribed by Ian Warrell (undated notes, Tate catalogue files).
Finberg 1930, pp.22–3.
Stainton 1985, p.43.
See Warrell 2003, p.88 and figs.76 and 77.
Ibid., p.88.
See ibid.
See Ian Warrell, undated notes, Tate catalogue files.
Including comments fromClark and others 1959, p.264, Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p.35, Gowing 1966, p.16, Butlin 1968, p.[5], Herrmann 1975, p.231, Wilton 1977, p.30, Wilton 1979, p.142, Gaunt and Hamlyn 1981, p.[58], Wilton 1982, p.40, Powell 1984, p.43, Stainton 1985, pp.14, 16, Gage 1987, p.49, Powell 1987, p.16, Perkins 1990, p.36, Wilcox 1990, p.33, Brown 1992, p.125, Jan Morris and Ian Warrell in Warrell 2003, pp.12 and 16 respectively, and Warrell 2008, pp.57, 67 note 1.
Butlin 1968, p.[3].
Wilton 1977, p.30.
Stainton 1985, p.42, quoting contemporary lines of Shelley’s poetry; compare Brown 1992, p.125, quoting Byron.
Perkins 1990, p.36.
Wilcox 1990, p.33.
Bockemühl 1993, pp.33–4.
Ibid., p.61.
Angela Madesani, Hiroyuki Masuyama: After J.M.W. Turner – Turner’s Journey from London to Venice/After J.M.W. Turner – Il viaggio di Turner da Londra a Venezia, exhibition catalogue, Studio la Città, Verona 2008, reproduced in colour p.30, as ‘Looking East from the Giudecca, Sunrise, 1819’, 2008.
Technical notes:
The work was painted within the Como and Venice sketchbook, the first eight leaves of which where mounted in 1935 (see the book’s Introduction); all of them were trimmed slightly irregularly at the gutter on the left, with the edges of the stitching holes being evident here and there.
Ian Warrell has observed that the apparently adventitious, irregular strip of brown watercolour along the bottom edge may have bled from the foreground of one of the earlier subjects (D15251–D15253; Turner Bequest CLXXXI 1–3).1
The etcher and collector John Postle Heseltine (1843–1929), whose occasional suggestions are noted in copies of the Inventory at Tate Britain, observed of this work while it was still presumably held within the sketchbook: ‘No.5 is perfectly preserved: it is suitable for exhibition but would fade’.2
Undated note, Tate catalogue files.
Transcribed from an unspecified MS source, ibid.,
Blank; stamped in black with Turner Bequest monogram over ‘CLXXXI – 5’ towards bottom left, inscribed in pencil ‘CLXXXI – 5’ bottom centre, and in pencil ‘CLXXXI | 5’ towards bottom right.

Matthew Imms
March 2017

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘Venice: Looking East towards San Pietro di Castello – Early Morning 1819 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, March 2017, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, July 2017, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-venice-looking-east-towards-san-pietro-di-castello-early-r1186395, accessed 24 May 2024.