Unlike Turner’s late views of Switzerland, he made no views of Venice that he would have regarded as finished works. As a result the majority of the some 150 watercolours produced during or after his last visit in 1840, of which this is a particularly ethereal and atmospheric example, remained in his possession and now form part of the Turner Bequest housed at Tate Britain. Very few went to private individuals, some, like this work, went to his dealer Thomas Griffith, perhaps to be used as an example of a composition that could be worked up on demand to form a finished work, as happened in the case of many of the Swiss views.
The Dogana or Customs House is one of the most prominent buildings in Venice and, not surprisingly, appears in a large number of Turner’s oils, watercolours and drawings. The view across the mouth of the Grand Canal, including the façade of the Zitelle on the Giudecca and, often, the island and church of San Giorgio, is a standard one, also painted by Canaletto and Guardi. Turner depicted it in works dating from all three of his visits to Venice in 1819, 1833 and 1840 and made it his own.
Turner’s representations of this view culminate in the oil painting exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1842 of The Dogana, San Giorgio, Citella from the Steps of the Europa (fig. 1), M. Butlin and E. Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, 1977, pl. 365; 1984, ed, pl. 400 and Warrell, op. cit. pl. 220). Turner had stayed at the Hotel Europa in 1833 and 1840 so his knowledge of the view is not surprising; the present watercolour, which leaves out San Giorgio, may have acted as a basis for the oil but this is hardly necessary particularly as the composition goes back to two works of 1819. What the two works have in common however, is the presence of the new moon which gives the evening light its particular character.
Two works from 1819 which both omit San Giorgio are a pencil drawing in the Milan to Venice sketchbook (Tate Britain, Turner Bequest CLXXV-40, illustrated Finberg, op. cit., pl. 2) and one of the four watercolours of Venice from the Como and Venice sketchbook (fig. 2). The latter lacks any pencil underdrawing and may be an unusual instance of Turner painting a watercolour on the spot. Unlike both the present watercolour and the oil painting, it distinguishes between the stone of the point of the Dogana and the warm reddish brick of the wall to the right. Indeed as Finberg writes of this and similar Venetian watercolours, ‘The range of colour is adversely limited. Little more than red, yellow and blue are used, and these are distilled to the faintest possible tints. But each watercolour is used in its utmost purity; there is no mixing of one with the other before they are put on paper... There is no attempt to match the local colour of any object which is represented. The colour is not imitative nor representational. It is absolute colour chosen and used as a poetical medium.’ (op. cit., p. 135).
At this time the Europa was still the private Palazzo Giustiniani and Turner would probably have had to make his drawing from the steps leading down to the Grand Canal adjacent to the palace. By the time of Turner’s second visit to Venice in 1833, the building had become the Hotel Europa and it was again from the steps in front that Turner drew the small pencil sketch of the Dogana seen across the mouth of the Grand Canal with gondolas in the foreground on page 80 verso of the Vienna up to Venice sketchbook (fig. 3) (Tate Britain, TB CCCXI ff. 80v ; illustrated Warrell, op. cit., pl. 83).
The present watercolour was almost certainly executed either back in the Hotel Europa or possibly once Turner had returned to London, as certain details on the right differ from those in the other versions of the composition. The technique is far removed from the fat work of the 1819 watercolour; subtle atmospheric washes are broken up by suggestions of details made with the point of a brush and there is an amazing use of fatly applied black to suggest the gondola on the left. The pink that suffuses the sky was probably applied in a band across the paper before any more detailed forms were added. Ian Warrell (loc. cit.) suggests that the Dogana itself is drawn in a different perspective from that of the left hand side of the composition, but that may be merely the result of the baroque form of the cupola distorting the receding horizontal band on the left. Much more than in the other versions of the composition the Dogana dominates the scene, perhaps as a reflection of the importance of its function as a tax office in the dominant commercial trade of the city. With its Doric façade by Giuseppe Benoni and turret surmounted by a golden ball and weather-vane, it remained in use as the customs house of Venice until early in the 21st Century, it is now an art museum.
TURNER’S VENETIAN WATERCOLOURS
Turner’s Venetian subjects, both in oil and watercolour, are now amongst the most sought after of his works. What is remarkable about them is how little time Turner actually spent in Venice and how late in his career it was that he first visited Venice; also that much of his interest in Venice was spurred on by external factors rather than the visual experience of the city that was such an inspiration to his work.
Turner’s first visit to Venice was in 1819, when he was already forty-four years old. He had admittedly been delayed by the interruption to foreign travel caused by the Napoleonic Wars. It was during the short-lived Peace of Amiens in 1802, that Turner secured just a glimpse of North Italy, penetrating as far as Aosta before returning to Paris where he reinforced his taste for Venetian art by copying the paintings, many looted from Italy, that could be seen in the Louvre. Yet even with the onset of peace in 1815 it was four years later, in 1819 that Turner made his first important visit to Italy, spending a mere five nights in Venice out of a total journey of six months (for Turner’s visit to Venice and a map of the routes taken, see C. Powell ‘Approaches to Venice’, in Warrell, op. cit., pp. 30 - 33) (fig. 4). He had however already executed two views of Venice, among eighteen Italian views, based on the drawings of James Hakewill, which were commissioned in 1812 for the latter’s Picturesque Tours in Italy, published 1818-20. A sketch for one of these, based on a tracing of Hakewill’s pencil drawing, is a fascinating lay-in of blue and yellow (illustrated in colour, Warrell, op. cit., pl. 29).
Turner’s next visit to Italy, in 1828-9, omitted Venice altogether and although the years between 1819 and the next Venetian visit of 1833 saw the production of a few finished watercolours of Venice and one vast unfinished oil, it was again an external stimulus that seems to have led to Turner’s return to the city. This was his more or less friendly competition with the younger artist Clarkson Stanfield (1793-1867) who had achieved considerable success with his Venetian subjects in the early 1830s. The Royal Academy’s exhibition of 1833 saw direct competition between the two artists with two pictures of virtually the same view looking across the mouth of the Grand Canal towards the Doge’s Palace and the campanile of San Marco with the Dogana in the foreground on the left (illustrated in colour, Warrell, op. cit., pls. 102 and 103). Turner barely disguised the rivalry by entitling his painting, Bridge of Sighs, Ducal Palace and Custom-House, Venice: Canaletti painting, showing Canaletto finishing off his painting in the open air, already framed, a highly unlikely occurrence.
Again, when Turner left England in 1833 after the Royal Academy exhibition, arriving in Venice on 9 September, he seems to have spent relatively little time there, probably a little over a week. There is still some slight doubt about which drawings and watercolours were painted on this visit rather than in 1840, but the chief result seems to have been a succession of oil paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy which continued every year until 1846, with the exception of 1838 and 1839. Twenty-five pictures in total of which roughly half were sold, a higher proportion than for his other exhibits. The finished watercolours following this trip were almost exclusively done as illustrations to the works of Sir Walter Scott, Samuel Rogers and Lord Byron.
Turner’s late tours of Europe were mainly concentrated on Switzerland and even in 1840, on a tour lasting from the beginning of August to late October, only a fortnight was spent in Venice, it was, however, Turner’s longest stay there. From this visit resulted a relatively large number of watercolours, though some may have been executed after his return to London. Some twenty-four have been traced outside the Turner Bequest (see Wilton, 1979, pp. 462-5, nos. 1352-75) but none of these was worked up to a state that the artist would have recognised as finished and suitable for sale. Some seem to have been detached from roll sketchbooks (large sketchbooks with soft covers that could be rolled up to fit into a large pocket) and others sold as a group to Thomas Griffith, Turner’s dealer, as happened in the case of The New Moon, all but four are now in public collections.
The 1840 watercolours are wonderfully varied in mood and technique, ranging from a group of dramatic stormy scenes and theatrical interiors to idylls of total calm such as The New Moon. Turner’s amazing gift of absorption garnered in a cornucopia of views and experiences from even the shortest of visits, and even those confined to the second half of his life, rank him alongside the native-born Canaletto and Guardi as one of the greatest masters of the Venetian scene.
‘THE MOON IS UP AND YET IT IS NOT NIGHT’:
TURNER’S NEW MOON, VENICE
It has been remarked before that all of the great artists who have painted Venice successfully have done so by detecting something in the city that appealed uniquely to them. Setting the bar high, Canaletto’s Venice is one of sparkling light and elegant, dancing lines. Bonington’s images of the city are less robust, but still characterised by brilliant sunshine. Whistler, on the other hand, found his version of Venice in pastel half tones, or in the etched shadows of side canals.
Falling between the last two chronologically, the Venice that resulted from Turner’s three short stays in the city is at its most singular and remarkable when it looks away from the celebrated landmarks to seize the nuances of changing light over the wider canals. Turner clearly loved the magic of night in Venice, captivated by his imaginings of the festive Carnival of its past. Even so, he was arguably more adept at capturing the poetry of twilight and dawn, cherishing the indistinctness and mystery of these transitional times.
It is perhaps surprising that at the very moment when Turner’s progressive style was attracting controversy and criticism for its imprecision, he regularly found buyers for his version of Venice. It was, in fact, his most successful subject commercially, eliciting commissions as well as sales from the annual Royal Academy exhibitions. Between 1833 and 1846, he exhibited twenty-five views of the miraculous floating city. The series has some wonderful highpoints, notably the sumptuously coloured depiction of the moon rising in the picture The Approach to Venice (1844; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.).
However, it is in Turner’s watercolours that we more often find his finest responses to the rich variety of transitory visual sensations that Venice offers. These were works that were painted entirely for his own pleasure in large sketchbooks or on sheets of paper. Most seem to have been produced during his final stay, his longest, at the end of August 1840. Then aged sixty-five, this large body of very appealing material offers no indication of a drop in quality, or of a slackening in the pace of his working routine. Rather the contrary. The watercolours reveal that he was awake and already at work as the sun rose. At the other end of a long summer day, he was observed by fellow British artist William Callow busily sketching the embers of a sunset near San Giorgio Maggiore. Appropriately, the much younger man was rather shamefaced when he looked back on this incident, recalling that, unlike the indefatigable Turner, he had long since given up on his work in order to lie back in a gondola and puff on a cigar.
Turner would not have been painting in watercolour on that occasion, since most of his primary observations in Venice were actually made in pencil, as was his usual habit on his travels. By 1840, after previous visits in 1819 and 1833, he had already stored up dozens of impressions – some very detailed, but more generally slight or schematic notations – recording in these the architectural fabric that contributes to Venice’s special character. He always noted far more than he was ever likely to use back in the studio. But curiously in Venice he sometimes omitted the most obvious sights. For example, he ignored the Bridge of Sighs until his second visit, preferring to spend more time in the peripheral areas of the city that he subsequently depicted in his oil paintings.
Though these pencil sketches were Turner’s standard mode of engaging with a subject, it is likely that he painted in watercolour directly from the motif far more often than usual during his 1840 visit. Many of the studies that come from the two larger ‘roll’ sketchbooks that he used interchangeably are built up with a restrained use of colour over faint, very skeletal pencil outlines. Of course, Turner was perfectly capable of generating complex images based solely on his recollections of any scene, often many years after he had seen the place in question. It was presumably the luxury of having two full weeks in Venice that liberated him from his habitual professional mindset, and the tornado pace of his travels, and enabled him to savour the process of painting for itself. Taking advantage of a large hotel room, he created an improvised studio, capturing the view from its windows across the rooftops, as well as creating there a more fully developed sequence of views charting the impact of a passing sultry thunder storm over the Bacino.
Turner’s hotel – the Europa - was in the Palazzo Giustiniani, at the mouth of the Grand Canal (The building serves these days as the offices of the Venice Biennale; meanwhile a different palazzo, further up the canal, facing Santa Maria della Salute, now lays claim to the name of the Europa). Situated directly opposite the Dogana, the Giustiniani palace was the perfect venue for Turner. Centrally located, it provided comfortable lodgings and one of the most stunning views in the city, looking out beyond the anchorage beside the Custom House to the wide expanse of the Bacino in front of the Doge’s Palace, with the Canale di San Marco stretching off towards the Lido. Closing off the middle distance beyond the Dogana is the eastern end of the Giudecca with the squat dome of the Zitelle, and to its left the monastery island of San Giorgio Maggiore, dominated by the campanile beside Palladio’s church.
This was a view he had first discovered in 1819 (see figs. 5 and 2), but to which he returned on each of his subsequent visits (fig. 6). He eventually celebrated the outlook in one of the Venetian subjects he exhibited in 1842 (fig. 1), producing a picture that seems to suspend time. In the foreground the gondolier’s downward stroke is frozen, while the reflections of marble façades and tethered boats stretch out across the water, miraculously unbroken, the surface resembling the glassy smoothness that moving water acquired during the lengthy exposures of early photographs.
The present watercolour was in one sense a starting point for the painting, and shares with it that same feeling of an instant of time offering a window into the infinite. It is slightly more resolved than others painted as part of the same batch, such as the study of a gondola painted with bold, quick brush strokes akin to those used for the one in the foreground here (fig. 7). The same diluted emerald waters and the washed out lemon sky can be found on other sheets, some of which are more obviously ideas for paintings (fig. 8). But at this date, none of these watercolours, including the much more detailed view of the Doge’s Palace at sunset, now in Dublin (fig. 9), would have been acceptable to contemporary taste as finished works. For the mid-ninteenth-century eye, there would still have been too much that appeared tentative, abstracted and open to suggestion. But therein lies the appeal to the Post-Impressionist vision.
As mentioned already, the strength of Turner’s depiction of Venice is most often dependent on the ambiguities he was able to capture in paint, and especially in his recreation of the waning light around dusk. In The New Moon, Venice, his broad horizontal washes overlap like successive glazes, and contribute to the feeling of a mirage seen through a haze. This leads the eye imperceptibly and inevitably towards the bright passage of uncoloured paper representing the Zitelle on the horizon. Here the architecture is implied rather than described fully. Indeed, because Turner knew these features so well, he did not trouble to particularise them. Similarly he adds only the tops of the arches running along the flank of the Dogana as a form of shorthand, in lieu of a more meticulous rendering of its ornamentation. This is obviously a long way from the topographical exactitude of Canaletto’s almost photographic representation of Venice, but to reproach Turner for not being Canaletto fails to distinguish between the nature and purposes of the images that either artist produced. Nevertheless, Turner shared with Canaletto a fascination with boats, and frequently undertook separate studies of the range of distinctive craft that could then be found on the Venetian lagoon, some of which are now scarcely seen. Moored close to the Dogana, the two-masted vessel with the furled sails is likely to be a sea-going transport boat known as a trabacolo. Turner was also enchanted by the form of the Venetian fishing boat – the bragozzo – many of which sported emblematic images on their sails, such as the one Turner introduced in his picture The Sun of Venice going to Sea (1843, Tate).
In recognising that The New Moon watercolour paved the way for the oil painting of 1842, it is tempting to assume a poetic intent in Turner’s placing of the new moon at the heart of the image. In the preceding years he had frequently deployed a moon symbolically, most memorably just the previous year in The Fighting Temeraire, tugged to her Last berth to be broken up, 1838 (1839, National Gallery, London). In that picture the presence of the waxing moon evokes a pattern of loss and renewal, a sense of the eternal to counter the transience of human endeavours, however great, as epitomised by the once formidable warship, now doomed for destruction. The title of another of the exhibits that Turner showed in 1839, a view of Rome, was accompanied by a quotation adapted from the popular Italian canto of Lord Byron’s epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in a deliberate strategy to encourage the viewer to focus on the astronomical conjunction it represented. The original text in Byron’s poem was actually inspired by Venice, and reads as follows:
‘The moon is up, and yet it is not night –
Sunset divides the sky with her’ (canto IV, stanza XXVII)
If these examples are insufficient to suggest the potency of Byron’s description as an influence on Turner’s subconscious outlook in Venice in 1840, one further instance should suffice. The picture in question was one of those he exhibited just a couple of months before setting out for Venice and is actually titled The New Moon (fig. 10). Although it seems to be a modest genre piece, with a faintly ridiculous subtitle, it is a serious mood piece, a novel genre in itself, with an over-arching theme along much the same lines as The Fighting Temeraire. For in all of these recent pictures, Turner had evoked meditative, elegiac twilight as a means of suggesting both mortality and the immensity of the cosmos.
Nevertheless, while these sentiments were surely not far from Turner’s conscious thought processes when he painted The New Moon, Venice, it is just as likely that he was simply recording what he actually saw. Using one of the online lunar calendars, it is possible to calculate that his stay in Venice at the end of August 1840 coincided with the first phase of the moon: the new moon would have appeared (clouds permitting) on the 27th, and would have reached its first quarter by the 3rd September, just after he left the city. Furthermore, it would still have been comparatively slim a few days later by the time he got to Burg Hals in Germany, more or less as he represented it rising above the ruins of that castle (Tate, D24776: TB CCLIX 211). From this evidence, we can conclude that there is an alluring combination of factual reportage and poesy in this depiction of Venice, and it is perhaps this duality that gives it a power beyond its haunting stillness.
Like many of the very finest images that Turner produced in Venice, The New Moon was put to one side by his dealer, Thomas Griffith, who retained it for himself. He may have encouraged the artist to introduce a greater degree of detail and finish to some of these Venetian scenes with the aim of selling them. Unfortunately, however, there is no contemporary account of any of these early transactions in the way there is for the sets of Swiss watercolours that Turner made to order from 1842 (including The Blue Rigi).
Looking at the watercolours from the 1840 trip to Venice, we have the benefit of hindsight and appreciate them as the last he would make there. Turner himself was not so far sighted: he lived and worked in the moment, and poured into them his intoxication with the city at the peak of his mature powers. But had all gone according to plan, he would have returned to Venice in 1845 to delight once again in the azure sky above the Lagoon. By then he was undoubtedly aware that his time was passing, and he might even have characterised himself (like Byron’s Childe Harold) as ‘A ruin amidst ruins’. Indeed this proved to be the problem: his health failed him that summer and a further trip was no longer possible. Instead he was left with his memories, and his watercolours, as he painted his two final pictures of Venice for the 1846 exhibition.
Barely a decade after his death Turner’s watercolours of Venice had begun to be as much as admired as any of the oil paintings of the city he had shown during his lifetime. John Ruskin had selected some of the finest watercolours from the roll sketchbook in the Turner Bequest for the displays he created for the National Gallery; and by 1861 he had divided his own group of Turner watercolours, including six views of Venice, between the university museums in Oxford and Cambridge. The ease of access to these three groups of watercolours ensured that the Venetian aspect of Turner’s work cast a potent spell on subsequent generations of art students, many of whom attempted to recreate the images for themselves.
One of those who came to London and was captivated by Turner’s watercolours, above almost anything else that he saw, was Claude Monet. During his spell of exile in 1870-1, he is known to have studied all the Turners available, enthusing subsequently about the use of colour. Indeed, his deeply-felt delight in the watercolours was something that Henri Matisse later claimed he was able to discern in the construction of Monet’s paintings.
In 1908 Monet eventually succumbed to the lure of Venice, following Turner’s example by staying near the mouth of the Grand Canal (ironically in the hotel now called the Hotel Europa e Regina, but which was then the Grand Hotel Britannia). It is not really surprisingly that it took him a while to find his own way in Venice, haunted as it was for him by the images of other artists, and especially those of Turner. His depictions of palaces are arguably his most novel contribution to the stock of Venetian view-making. But just as appealing are the canvases he painted that capture the glowing iridescent colours of sunset, fusing his own experience with everything he admired in Turner (fig. 11).