From the outbreak of hostilities between Britain and France in 1793 to the defeat of Napoleonic France at the battle of Waterloo in 1815, British citizens had been unable to travel to continental Europe (except during a brief truce from 1802 to 1803). For a restless character like J.M.W. Turner this must have been frustrating although he made do with ceaseless domestic peregrinations. However, in 1817 Turner toured Belgium, Holland and the Rhineland and two years later he traveled to Italy and made his first visit to Venice. He returned to la Serenissima in 1833 and this painting was based on sketches made during this visit.
One can imagine the impact which Venice – a city of canals rising from the sea with the moving reflections of water everywhere – must have had on Turner, the painter of light. His sketchbooks are full of notes to remind him of the precise colours for a particular area of the image, ‘Blue – Mass of Light – White – Sky purple – water green – and dark blue.’
The unique properties of Venetian light have been perfectly captured in this picture. The sky is partly occluded by diaphanous cloud which looks as if it is turning to a sea mist at the horizon; but where this breaks Turner has conjured a stunning dark azure blue. The water of the Grand Canal morphs from a similar ultramarine in the middle distance, breaking into a myriad colours in the foreground – greens, golds, muted blues, white highlights. The palaces and churches which line the canal are rendered in blinding whites and darker buff colours, their reflections changing the colour of the water beneath them to a mesmerising mix of white and gold.
The water is home to a curious mix of craft, the central vessel is laden with lobster pots and all manner of fishing gear. Turner is a master of nautical painting, at home with masts and rigging and the paraphernalia of wind-borne ships. But the vessel which catches the eye is the gondola to the right, looking a little sinister in its black livery. Turner has exaggerated its jet black reflection – a device which he used again to dramatic effect in one of his most famous late paintings, Burial at Sea.
Turner was never afraid to ‘improve’ on the panorama before him and this is precisely what he has done in this composition which is in fact a conflation of two views from two separate vantage points – each side of the canal is seen as though the viewer were standing on the opposite bank. But, as in all his art, what matters is not the exact accuracy of his representation of the subject but the way in which – in his quest to render the fleeting properties of light and in his search for the ‘sublime’ – he conjures the very soul of a city or a landscape.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1834 Paul Delaroche: The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, London, National Gallery
1835 Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot: Hagar in the Wilderness, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
1835 Caspar David Friedrich: Riesengebirge, St Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum