The present jewel-like watercolor is a recent rediscovery, whose whereabouts had been untraced, certainly since Andrew Wilton compiled his catalogue raisonné in 1979. It has for many years only been known from the 1835 line-engraving by William Miller (fig. 1).
The watercolor depicts a view of Brienne, France, the town where Napoleon studied as a cadet at the Royal Military School between 1779 and 1784. It serves a the landscape frontispiece to the second volume of The Life of Napoleon, in Sir Walter Scott's Prose Works, 1835, vol. IX.
Robert Cadell (1788–1849), Sir Walter Scott’s (1771-1832) publisher, had devised a scheme to republish all Scott’s writings, both prose and verse. His plan was that a new edition of the Poetical Works would be immediately followed by an edition of Scott’s Prose Works and both sets of works would be uniform in size and design. Turner was an enthusiastic reader of Scott’s work and it may be presumed that he accepted the commission to illustrate both Works gladly. It was possibly his admiration for the writer that led him to charge the relatively modest sum of 25 guineas for each of the planned twenty-four designs: indeed, Cadell himself expressed his surprise at the price Turner agreed. However the feeling was not mutual and although Scott admired Turner’s 'masterly pencil’, he was not entirely convinced of using Turner as illustrator for his Poetical Works; he hadn’t enjoyed working with him on Provincial Antiquities and he didn’t approve of Turner’s manners. Yet Cadell, in flattering Scott into accepting Turner as illustrator, identified a high common factor in their imagination: ‘There is about Mr Turner’s pencil what there is in the pen of one other person also, that which renders familiar Scenes more startling than before’. (J. Piggott, Turner’s Vignettes, exh. cat., London, 1993, p. 53).
Cadell had hoped to publish Prose Works with Scott’s Life of Napoleon and therefore wished these illustrations to be of a particularly high caliber, thus establishing the standard for the entire scheme. However by May 1833, neither Turner’s illustrations nor John Gibson Lockhart’s (Scott’s son-in-law) editing of the text were complete and the order of the Prose Works had to be altered. Prose Works was in fact extended to twenty-eight volumes, published between 1834 and 1836 and in the end Life of Napoleon occupied the central nine volumes (8-16). These volumes included sixteen works by Turner; each volume had a vignette on the title page opposite which Cadell placed either a portrait of Napoleon or one of the seven landscapes, such as the present watercolor, that Turner had completed for the publication.
The illustrations for Prose Works covered a much wider range of subjects that the Poetical Works, which consisted largely of Scottish landscape scenes, as well as some vignettes, such as Melrose and Bermerside Tower, in which Turner included figures of himself, Scott and Cadell. Turner was able to utilize some sketches already in his possession, such as those made on his 1831 tour of Scotland, for some of the drawings for Prose Works, However in the late summer and autumn of 1832 Turner undertook a tour of Northern France, particularly the coast and the outlying areas around Paris and along the course of the River Seine. His trip satisfied two aims: to gather material for Charles Heath’s two volume account of a cruise up the Seine from Le Havre to Troyes entitled Turner’s Annual Tour: Wanderings by the Loire and Seine (1833-5, later reissued as Rivers of France) and also to satisfy the commission he had received from Cadell for illustrations to Scott’s Life of Napoleon Buonaparte. We know from correspondence that Turner had left London by 17 August and returned around 23 October and it seems likely that he did not receive the commission from Cadell until he had already arrived in Paris. Turner used two sketchbooks on this tour: the Seine and Paris sketchbook and the Paris and Environs Sketchbook, which contains many sketches related to the Life of Napoleon, including views of Malmaison, Arc de Triomphe and Fontainebleau and hasty sketches of Brienne-le -Château, TBCCLVII 93 a, 94 and 109. It was at Brienne that Turner ended his Napoleonic Pilgrimage.
Turner had not read Scott’s biography of Napoleon before he left for France, so although Turner would have had a list of the key sites, the interpretation of the subjects was personal to the artist, rather than mere interpretations of Scott’s descriptions. We know from Cadell’s papers that Lockhart and Cadell discussed possible subjects, with Lockhart urging Cadell to trust Turner 'he will judge best’ (Piggott, op. cit., p. 59). The resulting group of watercolors were essentially landscapes, primarily intended to add some local color to the publication. However, as Ian Warrell noted, ‘the imagery can often be read symbolically. He has, in fact, animated them with waxing or waning moons, falling stars, and other effects that provide a running commentary on Bonaparte’s progress’. (I. Warrell, Turner on the Seine, London, 1999, p. 85).
In the present watercolor, the rising moon connects with the crescent moon above Napoleon’s window in the vignette which was printed opposite, Napoleon’s Logement, Quai Conti (W 1103; R 526). Turner had gone to some considerable trouble to locate the actual house. The reader is directed to identify Napoleon’s window with its parted curtains (resembling a nineteenth-century stage curtain about to open on a drama) by an etched marginal outline sketch of the dormer window below the engraving. Napoleon arrived here in May 1795 at the age of twenty-six, and left having been appointed General-in-chief of the Army of the Interior and also Commander of the Italian armies, commissioned to wage war against Italy. It was from this house he set out to marry Josephine. The crescent moon suggests a rise in fortune, and a fall to follow. Scott’s view of Napoleon’s fall is one of divine punishment and the restoration of Nature and Turner followed this imagery.
Napoleon had captivated the artist’s imagination even before his involvement with Cadell’s commission. In 1817 Turner had visited Waterloo and its surroundings and in 1818 he had exhibited a large scale painting of the subject, The Field of Waterloo, at the Royal Academy. Much later, in 1842, he further explored the subject of Napoleon, this time in captivity, in his painting War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet (Tate Gallery). However Ian Warrell notes that this ‘group of sixteen watercolors for the Scott biography are his most concentrated engagement with Bonaparte’s life’ (ibid.) and Piggott (op. cit. p. 59) states that 'The Napoleon Commission gave Turner the opportunity in a sequence of vignettes for a sustained meditation on Napoleon’s fall’.
The present watercolor is a wonderfully restless and unsettling design, created by lines at uneasy relation to each other. The cool and refined palette skillfully depicts the cold light of a winter’s night. Scott’s text which accompanies the engraving informs us that 'In the time of Winter, Buonaparte upon one occasion engaged his companions in the constructing of a fortress out of the snow, regularly defended by ditches and bastions, according to the rules of fortification. It was considered as displaying the great powers of the juvenile engineer in the ways of his profession…’ Turner’s figures of recruits at exercise anticipate the columns of soldiers in later images in the series, and we see echoed the elms planted by Napoleon for the mule baggage-trains along the Routes Nationales.
The powerful combination of both Scott’s and Turner’s descriptive mastery has resulted in one of Turner’s most important series of illustrations, of which this engaging watercolor is an excellent example.
We are grateful to Jan Piggott and Ian Warrell for their help in preparing this catalogue entry.
William Miller after J.M.W. Turner, Brienne, 1834. ©Tate Images.