The views of Switzerland that Turner created in the 1840s, when he was in his late sixties, have long been admired as the culmination of a lifetime of innovative achievement as a watercolor artist. Turner himself recognized that the Swiss lakes and mountains had stimulated something exceptional from him, and he consequently valued these watercolors among his most highly-priced works on paper. The continuing appeal of his final depictions of Swiss scenery was proved in 2006, when The Blue Rigi: Sunrise (Fig. 1), painted in 1841-1842, passed through these Rooms fetching £5.8 million, the record price for a British watercolor.
Like The Blue Rigi, this watercolor records the view to the south-east of Lucerne, across its eponymous lake, to the distinctive mass of the mountain known as the Rigi. Though the Rigi rises only to 1,797 meters, a modest height when compared to numerous more challenging Alpine peaks, its proximity to Lucerne, and the steady incline of its slopes, ensured that it became one of the most popular climbing targets for the first generation of tourists in the mid-nineteenth century. The view from the summit was considered among the finest in Switzerland, especially at sunset or sunrise, when the spectacular effect was frequently augmented by the drone of an alpine horn.
Turner had first seen and sketched the saddle-like wedge of the Rigi during his rushed tour of the Alps in 1802. But it was only during his annual summer tours between 1841 and 1844 that the mountain became a motif he invested with potent and poetic resonances. Early in 1842, after the first of these visits, he embarked on a set of ten watercolors, each of which had been commissioned as a more developed (or 'finished') version of the preliminary color sketches he had made during his travels. This was an unconventional way of working that appears to have both bewildered and enthralled the group of collectors who were invited to make the selection of subjects. In addition to views of Lake Constance, the Splügen Pass and Zurich, most of the first series of these watercolors depicted Lake Lucerne (Fig. 2), of which three focused on the Rigi, each of which is now referred to by its defining color or tonal effect. Turner intended two of them to act as contrary states: one shows the mountain lit by a cool blue light at sunrise (The Blue Rigi, now at Tate Britain); and it is contrasted by the hazy warmth at the end of the day, which illuminates the Rigi with a red glow (The Red Rigi, now at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne). The success of the pair resulted in a request for another version of the morning effect, known as The Dark Rigi (Private Collection). Like The Red Rigi, the third work was sought by the most important patron of Turner's later years, H.A.J. Munro of Novar, a Scottish landowner and amateur painter, who had been privileged to travel through the Alps with Turner in 1836.
The viewpoint in Turner's watercolors of the Rigi is one he could enjoy from the windows of an inn he habitually chose during his stays in Lucerne between 1841 and 1844. Recommended in many early guidebooks, 'L'Hôtel du Cygne' was right on the waterfront, and would have enabled Turner to study the mountain as its appearance was modified by the changes of light in the course of the day. From the hotel he also could witness, in comfort, more dramatic atmospheric effects, such as the rainstorm he shows in some of his color studies. This enduring obsession with the Rigi can be charted in a stunning array of watercolors, the majority of which are in the Turner Bequest at Tate Britain. This distinctive fascination with the nuances of perception as they can be discerned in the contemplation of a specific motif anticipates the later preoccupations of Claude Monet, in his various canvases devoted to haystacks or to Rouen cathedral, or of Paul Cézanne, in his repeated renderings of the flanks of Montagne Sainte Victoire in Provence.
Some of Turner's most daring and economic variations on the motif of the Rigi were painted in 1844 in a soft-bound jotter simply designated the 'Lucerne' sketchbook (Turner Bequest CCCXLV; Tate Britain). But he also worked on separate sheets of paper that year as he toured the lakes of central Switzerland. The watercolor offered here can be related to some of these, and particularly to another view of Lake Lucerne (The Rigi, Lake Lucerne: Sunset; see Andrew Wilton, The Life and Work of J.M.W. Turner, Fribourg and London, 1979, p. 476, no. 1472). Whereas the sun is setting in that work, here the moon has already begun to supplant its place in the sky. The same palette range occurs in both watercolors, particularly the deep and lighter shades of blue, as well as the striking use of green; and the latter color can also be found in the view of Thun, firmly dated to 1844, in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh.
This view of the Rigi previously belonged to the Manchester newspaper magnate, John Edward Taylor (1830-1905), whose notable collection of works by Turner - including both the Blue Rigi and the Red Rigi - was dispersed over a century ago at Christie's (5 July 1912, lots 46 and 47). It is likely that Taylor acquired this watercolor from another northern collector, Ralph Brocklebank. The latter was listed in Sir Walter Armstrong's 1902 catalogue as the owner of a view of the 'Lake of Lucerne, with Rigi', which has the same measurements as this work, and is described as 'Lake and mountain. Rapid color sketch. Deep blue water.'
We are grateful to Ian Warrell for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.
Fig. 1: J.M.W. Turner, The Blue Rigi: Sunrise, Christie’s, London, 5 June 2006, lot 53.
Fig. 2: J.M.W. Turner, The Lake of Lucerne from Brunnen, with a Steamer, Christie’s, New York, 30 January 2018, lot 84.