Turner in Venice

Turner in Venice. The artIst made three trips to Venice, in the late summers of 1819, 1833, and 1840 and are celebrated as some of the most extraordinary creations of his late career.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (b.1775 – d.1851), was just one of many distinguished artists to visit the city and was forty-four when he made his first trip to Venice.

He drew inspiration partly from its literary and historical associations, the reputation of its painters and partly by its own unique beauty. Venice’s shimmering light, its ethereal beauty and its faded magnificence; inspired some of Turner’s best-loved, most magical and mysterious images. 

Turner remains one of the few artists to truly reflect his own sensibility, in the unique qualities of this sublime city; that appears to rise directly out of the lagoon waters. 

His Venetian sketch-books and watercolours in particular, captures his personal vision, that still remains vital today and gives us insight into the inner workings of his creative mind. 



At Venice, Turner found freedom of space, brilliancy of light, variety of colour, massive simplicity of general form; and to Venice we owe many of the motives in which his highest powers of colour have been displayed“.                          John Ruskin, Modern Painters.



Turner in Venice – Introduction

As a mature artist, Turner’s images of Venice, can be regarded a one of the most important parts of his output. In less than four weeks over three visits, he built a very close bond with the city; attracted partly by its literary and historical associations, the reputation of its painters and partly by its own unique but faded beauty.

Venice: San Giorgio Maggiore at Sunset, from the Hotel Europa 1840 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851The effects of light on water, typified by his sea paintings; had always been important to Turner. It seems fateful, that he would be attracted by the effect of ever changing light; on what the city’s numerous islands, located in their own saltwater lagoon.

Above: Venice: “San Giorgio Maggiore at Sunset, from the Hotel Europa 1840” Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Considering the appeal of his work, it is surprising that he only exhibited twenty-five of his Venetian paintings; within his lifetime! These paintings  sold well, even though much of his other work was somewhat controversial and slow to find buyers. It was only after 1851, that the true extent of his imagination, was slowly revealed; as his work came to light. This more substantial body of work, made in under a month, amounting to 150 watercolours and perhaps a thousand sketches; preserved his more personal encounter and vision of this aquatic city, rising out of its lagoon.

Although much of this work, may have been considered unfinished by the standards of that period; it allowed viewers to savour his private reactions to his subject. Fortunately, many of the works from this period, come from the artist’s own immense bequest; housed at Tate Britain in London.


Turner in Venice – Building his Preconceptions

Turner’s preconceptions of Venice were no doubt formed, before he set out on his first visit in 1819. Primarily, it was the work of Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768), which enabled Turner’s generation; to get a visual idea of the city, before arrival.

Turner, like so many other visitors, would have known Canaletto’s work mainly through engraved reproductions; especially a set by Antonio Visentini, published in 1735-42. These were not only focused on the Grand Canal, but also the city’s churches and public spaces.

At the time, they provided the style and the standard, for others to match. In fact, Turner acknowledged his debt to Canaletto in his first painting of Venice; which shows the artist working rather improbably, outside at his easel. However, he never felt constrained by Canaletto’s work, absorbing principles from him; but concerned to produce something quite different, as demonstrated in his later work.

Canaletto influence, can also be seen in other British artists work of the period, including William Marlow and Richard Parkes Bonington; who exhibited in both Paris and London. Indeed, Marlow’s painting, in particular, shows the ways in which London and Venice were seen as related commercial centres; at the end of the 18th century.

Above: Antonio Canal (Canaletto) 1697 – 1768, “Grand Canal from Ca’ Balbi towards Rialto” (1720 – 1723).

But in Turner’s time, the amount of variety of shipping to 19th century visitors; could not compare with that seen in views of the Bacino; as shown in Canaletto’s and earlier paintings. For instance, the famous Riva degli Schiavoni, running from the Doge’s Palace to the Arsenal; offers spectacular views of St Mark’s Basin and the city’s most famous landmark buildings. Ships anchored here, when the Republic of Venice was at the height of its power as a trading and commercial centre.  Perhaps that is why Turner therefore, tended instead to focus on smaller craft, gondolas or the local fishing boats known as “bragozzi.” These smaller vessels have given his images, a greater sense of space and perhaps a more timeless quality.


Turner in Venice – His three visits

Turner made three visits to Venice during the course of about twenty years.

  • 1819: 8-13th September; he stayed at the Albergo Leon Bianco.
  • 1833: from 9th September for about a week, he stayed at the Hotel Europa at Ca’Giustinian.
  • 1840: 20th August – 3rd September, he stayed again at the Hotel Europa at Ca’Giustinian.

First trip. For his first visit to Venice in 1819, Turner stayed at the Albergo Leon Bianco (White Lion), close to the Rialto Bridge on the Cannaregio district side of the Grand Canal. Well prepared for his short stay, he arrived in Venice carrying a notebook of recommendations for lodgings; where to find key artworks and places most worth visiting.

In less than a week, he produced four sketchbooks and four larger luminous watercolours in unfinished form; capturing the essence of the effect of morning sunlight across the Bacino.

Turner’s working habit was to sketch principally in pencil. He claimed “he could make fifteen pencil sketches in the time taken to produce one watercolour”. Returning to London, Turner put aside his first trip’s work. However, he did produce two sets of book illustrations for the poetry of Samuel Rogers; that became immensely popular in the 19th century. It brought his work to the notice of several generations; including the young John Ruskin.


It was not until 1833, that he first exhibited his Venetian paintings at the Royal Academy of Art’s annual show.

AboveSan Giorgio Maggiore – Early Morning”, was painted on his first visit, in 1819 at the age of 44.

(My own comment. How does he achieve the overall effect in the above painting? It’s about light (direct and reflected), colour, water, stone and technique. In simple terms, he selected the view for this landscape, looking in the direction of the light (contre-jour). Overall, the painting is kept light in tone, with the sky reflected in the water, in a slightly darker tonal range. The key structural elements, are broadly positioned in the mid ground and the boats are small in scale; with simple silhouette shapes and less detail. This all gives an increased feeling of luminosity, space and the sense that Venice appears to float in the lagoon. The painting is simplified and more atmospheric, leaving more for the imagination. Watercolour paints are transparent and the paper is matt, with a soft white base; helping to control the highlight contrasts and gradation well.)

This early picture marks the beginning of a more transparent approach to watercolour, that Turner would incorporate into his work; for the remainder of his career.

Second trip. That same year in 1833, he made his second trip to Venice;apparently after a long detour to Vienna, Austria; including picking up sketchbook supplies of his favourite Whatman brand. Unfortunately, it transpired that the paper was essentially of inferior quality; as it had been made in Austria, to avoid import duties payable! Again, on this trip, most of his work consisted of books of quick pencil sketches; that later translated into successful paintings. Some of the colour studies made on sheets of grey paper, are likely to date from this visit.

Third Trip. For his final trip in 1940 in August, the weather conditions were humid and stormy; which may have accounted for his longer stay than in previous trips. The result was a flowering of creativity in watercolour and his most productive stay; reacting to the distinctive watery characteristics of the islands in the lagoon and searching out new perspectives. Apparently, Turner’s dedication put other artists to shame. William Callow admitted feeling guilty, that he was lying around smoking in a gondola late one evening; when he saw Turner in another gondola, still sketching San Giorgio.

During his final stay in Venice, Turner seems to have used his rooms in the Hotel Europa as a temporary studio. It is likely that at least some of his rapid pencil sketches, may have been reworked with watercolour back in his room. The building is not the same as that which now currently houses the Hotel Europe e Regina (where Monet stayed); but lies closer to the mouth of the Grand Canal in the Ca’Giustinian; just behind the church of San Moise.

Looking down from high vantage-points in the Europa hotel, gave him fresh and wide perspectives; over the rooftops of the city. Turner’s room windows looked out in one direction, towards the Campanile of San Marco to the east; while from the top of the building he could look south, down across the Grand Canal to the Dogana (customs building) and the “Salute” church; on the narrow peninsular of the Dorsoduro district. In fact, the backs of several of these studies are annotated with notes by Turner; that testify to his excitement of being in temporary possession of these exceptional views. He also sought out viewpoints, that suggested the feeling of a city, rising out of the lagoon waters; as well as an interest in the lives of fisherman and their boats.

JMWTurner. “The Upper End of the Grand Canal, with San Simeone Piccolo; Dusk, 1840”On this visit, Turner devoted a whole sketchbook to a survey of the entire length of the Grand Canal. Other watercolours, focus on the areas near the first hotel where he was based. As well as working from a boat, Turner painted some of his watercolours from the landing stages on the Grand Canal. His views of the final stretch are dominated by the church of Santa Maria della Salute; its domes transformed by the changing direction and quality of light.

Left: JMW Turner.  “The Upper End of the Grand Canal, with San Simeone Piccolo; Dusk, 1840

From the Dorsoduro district peninsular, the wide Giudecca Canal; separates it from the long and narrow Guidecca island. Turner had ventured briefly onto the Giudecca, during his first visit to Venice; getting only as far as the church of the Redentore (Redeemer), designed by Palladio in the 16th century. It was not until this final visit in 1840, that Turner really began to appreciate the spectacular views across to the heart of the city, that the area offered. Earlier artists had largely neglected the Giudecca Canal, so Turner made the most of the opportunity to present the city’s familiar landmarks; in strikingly new ways.

Directly opposite the Doge’s Palace, off the eastern end of the Giudecca; lies the island of San Giorgio Maggiore; with its striking church facade of white marble; largely conceived by the architect Andrea Palladio, in the mid-16th century. Its facade, campanile and dome; appear repeatedly in Turner’s watercolours. He seems to have been particularly fascinated by the play of light, on this Venetian landmark.


The Sun of Venice Going to Sea exhibited 1843 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Turner in Venice – The Final Decade

Back home, the inspiration drawn from the productive trip, produced a long series of oil paintings. At the Royal Academy’s show or soon after; more than half of his exhibited work sold. Despite commercial success of these “atmospheric” works, critics remained divided. Some adverse comments on his work suggested, “merely splashed palettes, made of blots and handfuls of smeared paint, and only intelligible from a distance“. Even those, who admitted to being entranced by his “beautiful and fantastic play of colours”; were disconcerted by the difficulty of making out forms and shapes.

Left: J.M.W. Turner. “The Sun of Venice Going to Sea”. Exhibited 1843, Oil on canvas.


Undeterred, by the sour critical responses, he also produced more atmospheric paintings, seemingly unfinished with indistinct imagery and blocked up detail. Evidently, it was in his mind; to rework them to a more detailed finish, as the commissions rolled in! Perhaps also, he may have wished to return once again to Venice.

He exhibited about twenty-five oil paintings of the city between 1833 and 1846 .Several of these pictures in Turner’s Gallery remained unsold, at his death in 1851.

However, the true strength of his fascination only became known after his death. Ten sketchbooks, containing many hundreds of Venetian scenes, were found in his studio; as well as a large group of watercolours. These remain the most compelling evidence of Turner’s personal vision of the city. The city had become merely a component part in Turner’s meditations on light, colour and the reflective surfaces of water and stone.

Turner tried to maintain to the end, his determination to find new perspectives; from which to challenge and enchant the viewer.


1. Literary Influences

It not only from Canaletto, that Turner’s ideas about Venice were derived from; they were equally formed from a number of literary sources.

Above all Shakespeare’s Venetian plays, “The Merchant of Venice” and “Othello”; as well as Byron’s poems and verse-dramas. These works inevitably permeated Turner’s paintings and watercolours of the city. The final part of Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”, was published in 1818, just as Turner’s interest in the art, history and landscape of Italy; was at its most intense. The poem may well have contributed to his determination to visit Venice for the first time.

JMW Turner, Venice – Maria della SaluteThe poem, must have had an especially strong appeal, as Turner’s reputation was founded partly on his images of picturesque ruins. So, Byron’s evocation of Venice, as a city still beautiful, though ‘Her palaces are crumbling to the shore’ must have impressed.

Left: JMW Turner, Venice – “Maria della Salute

Byron had also described Venice, as a jewel rising out of the sea; but surprisingly few artists tried to show its isolated setting, in the vast expanses of the Lagoon. (Note: much of Venice is only 1 metre above sea-level). Turner seems to have been alone in developing a fascination for the profile of the city seen from the surrounding waters. Turner and Byron, never met in Venice; as by 1819, the poet was exiled from the city. 


2. Masters of Venetian paintings

When Turner began his career, in the 1790’s, the London art world was entranced by the beauty of Venetian painting.

A temporary halt in the war between Britain and France, following “The Peace of Amiens” treaty in 1802; opened up the possibility of continental travel again. Turner went to Paris to study in the Louvre, which at the time housed art appropriated by Napoleon; including works by Veronese, Titian and Tintoretto from Venice. Turner admired paintings, where landscape provided more than just merely providing a secondary role as a background setting. He was particularly impressed by Titian and attempted to assimilate the lessons of the master, in his own pictures.

The scenes was traditionally dominated by the Doge’s Palace, San Mark’s Basilica and its Campanile or bell-tower. The Basilica now the city’s cathedral, was criticised by some for its mixture of architectural styles; the poet Thomas Moore having described it as ‘barbaric’. But Turner, having studied the outside during his first visit, on later trips turned his attention to the interior; utilising dark brown paper to suggest the gloom of the interior and enhance the glinting of its mosaics.

In the 18th century, Canaletto’s images had contributed to a prevailing preference for the city seen in sunlight. But as its palaces crumbled and its canals became silted up and choked with weeds; poets such as Thomas Moore, began to suggest that Venice became magical only when the ‘dimness of the light’ masked its decay. Turner only publicly exhibited one painting of Venice at night. His contemporaries, were unaware of the large group of studies he had made principally for his own use; showing the city’s transformation by moonlight. Few of the drawings and watercolours, were considered worthy of being exhibited in public; until relatively recently.

The artist Ippolito Caffi, born in Belluno in 1809; was another influence on Turner. He studied historic painting and Canaletto’s view paintings, at the Fine Arts Academy in Venice. A great innovator of Venetian view painting, he travelled extensively throughout Italy and spent time from 1832 to 1836 in Rome; a natural meeting place of landscape painters from all over Europe. In Rome, Caffi created renditions of the ancient ruins, achieving noteworthy results. This was followed up by trips to the Middle East and Greece and in 1848.

In 1851, he exhibited his work at The Great Exhibition in London. Upon returning to Venice in 1857, fired up with enthusiasm; Caffi set upon making a series of images making effective use of colour and light, destined to become his most famous. They not only included, scenes on the Grand Canal, San Giorgio Maggiore and the Carnival; but work in which he revealed his deep fascination with subdued light and night-time scenes.

Left: Ippolito Caffi.  “Venezia, il molo al tramonto” 1864  One of the classic view looking West, over the Molo quayside and towards the Salute church. Theatrical, 3/4 from the rear lighting and midrange tonality reduced; focusses the light and adds dimensionality. Strongly contrasting saturated colours in the sky, reflect on the ground and water. Very dramatic! Today the Molo, is covered in gondola docks and waterbus stations and a lot more people!


3. In Turner’s Footsteps



Left: Painting by Claude Monet showing the view towards San Giorgio Maggiore. (date indistinct here – ?1909). Turner died in 1851.

Monet kept the sky and water, in  light to mid tones and contrasting colours, as a unified base ; adding just a few small boats in darker tones.





Left: I have also reduced the Monet to monochrome to note the effect, as discussed further below. You can see how the use of contrasting colours give life and depth – the monochrome version looks flat. Cezanne the post-impressionist, created depth in a different way; by using the technique of using adjacent blocks of contrasting colours, for example, cool (blue) and warm (ochre) shades.




Below: Ian Coulling. “View from the Molo towards San Giorgio Maggiore”.  I have presented two digital colour original files – one in colour and the other reduced to monochrome, then sepia toned. Both were taken within a few minutes and within about 5 metres to one side of the other (check the lamp on the jetty, in both). The San Giorgio Maggiore church in both pictures, is kept in the centre of the mid-ground. It’s interesting how we perceive and read both images. The different picture formats change the perception.  In both, the picture elements are very tightly controlled.

In the colour image,the composition is very “classically” framed – the weight of the picture, up both sides and along the base. The sky shows real contrast in colour, as well as that between the gondola covers and the lower cloud base. The image is unified, predominately by its colour associations and the small reduction in overall tone and to the mood.

While the monochrome image in sepia, has a unifying base tone. The contrasting sky colours now almost equate to the same tone. Also the overall base tones are reduced, focusing on the light predominantly on the prow of the gondola and less so the church facade and water highlights.  The format, removal of colour contrasts and lowered base tones; together simplify and unify the image and gives a greater sense of space.


































Foreign Artists working in Venice: 

Monet in Venice

Whistler in Venice

John Ruskin – Writer and Artist”

The Two “Golden ages” of Venetian Art:

Venetian Artists-18th Century       

The Venetian School of Art   

Please see my other related posts in the category of  Art-Music-Literature 

More classic views captured by artists and photographers, can be seen in my galleries G1, 2, 35 and 48.



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