Sublime Sites

Explorations in the footsteps of Turner, Cotman and Ruskin with Professor David Hill

Turner at Sisteron: Continued Observations

This article extends the exploration of Turner’s Sisteron subjects in the light of a recent visit 12-14 April. In particular I focus on a watercolour of Sisteron from the North-West that was sold at Christie’s, New York, on 5 November 2013. This was the occasion of my earlier article ‘Moonlight and its implications: Turner at Sisteron’ posted on 8 November 2013. The watercolour was sold under the description of ‘with a Low Sun’ but the subject is in fact a nocturne.

J.M.W.Turner Sisteron from the North-West: Moonlight, 1838? Watercolour, 5 1/2 x 7 1/2 ins, 140 x 190 mm Prive Collection, sold Christie's New York, 5 November 2013, lot 149, $149,000 Photo courtesy of Christie's - to see the watercolour in Christie's online catalogue archive click on the following link, and press the 'back' button to return to this page: http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/drawings-watercolors/joseph-mallord-william-turner-ra-sisteron-from-5737579-details.aspx

J.M.W.Turner
Sisteron from the North-West: Moonlight, 1838?
Watercolour, 5 1/2 x 7 1/2 ins, 140 x 190 mm
Private Collection, sold Christie’s New York, 5 November 2013, lot 149, $149,000
Photo courtesy of Christie’s – to see the watercolour in Christie’s online catalogue archive click on the following link, and press the ‘back’ button to return to this page:
http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/drawings-watercolors/joseph-mallord-william-turner-ra-sisteron-from-5737579-details.aspx

About an hour after sunset on 12 April 2014 I took the picture below.

Sisteron by Moonlight: Looking over the Pont du Buech to the Citadel and the Rocher de la Baume Photograph by David Hill. Click to enlarge and then 'back' to return to this page.

Sisteron by Moonlight: Looking over the Pont du Buech to the Citadel and the Rocher de la Baume
Photograph by David Hill.
Click to enlarge and then ‘back’ to return to this page.

Actually that’s not quite true; the picture I took in fact was this:

Sisteron; the Pont du Buech by Moonlight Photograph by David Hill, 12 April 2014, 20.53.04 Click to enlarge and then use 'back' button to return to this page

Sisteron; the Pont du Buech by Moonlight
Photograph by David Hill, 12 April 2014, 20.53.04
Click to enlarge and then use ‘back’ button to return to this page

As you can immediately see, the top picture is the product of some skulduggery with Photoshop. Reflecting on the photograph that I actually took, I just could not resign myself to the fact that the position of the moon did not exactly match that of the Turner. I have mixed feelings about my intervention. One part of me is delighted that the moon is now in the right place, but the other cries ‘lies and deceit’. The mediator in all this thinks that here is a really interesting dilemma, and wonders what might actually be at stake. If the photos cannot be relied upon, what might that imply for the Turner?

In the first article ‘Moonlight and its Implications’ I speculated that the Christie’s watercolour might have been made in sequence with another in a private collection in Mexico that shows pretty much exactly the same view but at sunset . [The Mexico picture is the subject of a previous instalment of Sisteron observations posted on 21 April 2014.]

This might be the case, but they cannot be true of the same day. Both watercolours show the moon in the same place, but as my (unadulterated) photographs show the moon moved quite some distance across the sky in the interval of about an hour that separates them.

The effect that Turner shows is, however, perfectly true, and two days later at the same time the moon would have been in just the right part of the sky. The moon shown in the first photograph is two days before full. So to venture into territory familiar to astronomers and navigators, but nowadays to hardly anyone else: On each succeeding day the moon progressively rises an hour later and 6° further right (i.e. south). So whilst on 12 April by the time that it seemed properly dark the moon was above the citadel, a couple of days later, had I been able to return that evening, it would have been exactly where required. So Turner could have painted these watercolours with complete phenomenological fidelity, but necessarily a couple of days apart.

Many of you may possibly have concluded that a simpler explanation might be that Turner simply painted what he wanted. After establishing the accuracy of the sunset shadow picture, and arguing the plausibility of the Christie’s moonlight, I am loathe to agree with that, but I do have to admit that there are some compelling reasons for doubting that Turner can have painted the present subject from nature.

The first is fairly obvious: In such conditions there was insufficient light to paint. Even under the modern road lights he would have struggled. The watercolour is so full of subtle tonal effects and nuances of colour that it must have been painted in good light, and not just good light but daylight.

This is not, however, to deny the particularity of the effect. By the time that he painted this watercolour he had forty-five years practice of depicting moonlit landscapes. He knew how to make out every variety of effect that might be witnessed and knew how to understand every phenomenon in pictorial terms. He would have had no difficulty in registering the specifics of what he saw, or in conceiving of the methods by which to transmute his perceptions into paint.

Further, there is direct evidence that it was made away from the motif. The tonal differentiation is slight, but Turner does show the Pont de la Baume in the bottom of the valley beneath the moon. The bridge is in the centre of the detail, blue against the warmer colours of the background:

Detail of Pont de la Baume - centre of composition, blue against the warmer background colours. Click to enlarge

Detail of Pont de la Baume – centre of composition, blue against the warmer background colours.
Click to enlarge

In fact this is impossible. As can be seen from the Google Earth image the Pont de la Baume is not visible from anywhere near the Pont du Buech. It is hidden round the right-angled corner where the Buech joins the Durance.

Google Earth aerial view of the confluence of the Durance and Buech. The Pont du Buech is to the right. The Pont de la Baume only comes into view from near the right bank of the Durance.

Google Earth aerial view of the confluence of the Durance and Buech. The Pont du Buech is to the right. The Pont de la Baume only comes into view from near the right bank of the Durance.

In reality Turner would have had to move quite some distance to the left, right along to the banks of the river Durance, to bring the Pont de la Baume at all into view. Turner did actually record that view in a watercolour now at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester (note 1).

The inclusion of the Pont de la Baume is synthetic rather than analytic. As we shall also see in due course, there is another clear instance of Turner adopting a synthetic approach in his sketches of Sisteron. It is not by any means the norm in his sketches at the site as we shall see, but distinctive enough for it to stand out from his general practice during this period as a significant and developing aspect.

Notes
1. J.M.W.Turner, Sisteron from the North, 1838 Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery. Photograph courtesy of the Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester. To see this image in the Whitworth’s own online catalogue click on the following link then click the ‘back’ button to return to this page:
http://www.whitworth.manchester.ac.uk/collection/advsearch/objdisp/?irn=171&QueryPage=%2Fcollection%2Fadvsearch%2Fresults%2F&QueryName=BasicQuery&QueryTerms=turner+sisteron&StartAt=1&QueryOption=all&all=SummaryData%7CAdmWebMetadata&Submit=Search

Sisteron Buech Moon tailpiece

2 comments on “Turner at Sisteron: Continued Observations

  1. Roland Courtot
    March 20, 2015

    I go on studying the Turner’s sketchbooks on French itineraries, and I was much interested in your investigations to find the exact date of the watercolour with moonlight and castle’s shadow on the landscape of Sisteron seen from the NW.
    I take permission to make some remarks about informations of your text:

    About the season of the Turner’s stay in Sisteron, you know that, in the watercolour of Manchester Withworth art gallery “Sisteron from the north”, Turner drew in the left foreground of the image a scene of grape harvesting time, which used to take place at the end of September or the beginning of October, as I remembered in my article in “Méditerranée” 2004. You signal this watercolour in the note 1 of “Continued observations”.

    You write, about the watercolours, that “none of them have any counterpart in the pencil sketches” (there is no pencil drawing done by Turner of Sisteron from the north): effectively, no pencil sketch correspond with the watercolours and gouaches points of view. But in fact there is a sketch’ whose point of view is not far from the one of the Withworth “Sisteron” : I think of the D29579 (CCXCV), which is called “ Bridge and fortress on rock” by the Tate online catalog, and represents, from the left bank of the Durance river, a view from NE: clocher des Augustins,Rocher de la Baume, bridge, Fortress and La Cazette bastide from left to right. We know that the Withworth watercolour was made from the Cazette park, on the left side of the Buech river, near its confluent with Durance. The 2 points of view are separated only by the width of the Durance river..But I can subscribe, generally speaking, to your affirmation that the numerous watercolours of Sisteron have been made on the spot or during the stay in Sisteron, because this confirm the fact that Turner used to draw, in the sites which much more solicited its painter’s interest, a lot of sketches on cut-sheets of watercolour paper to prepare the basis of painted works to be done afterwards.

    About the mill that you comment at the end of your first text (and note 6) in the Sisteron from the North West (Sotheby’s) you know that in the Withworth “Sisteron”, there are also several mills on the right bank of the confluent between Durance and Buech. The situation of their wheels is that of “au fil de l’eau” mills which were apparently very difficult to install on the ridge of so impetuous Mediterranean rivers as Buech and Durance. Il we look at the maps, the Cassini one represent no mill on the right bank of the Buech and Durance, but 3 mills on small currents of the left bank of Buech, upwater of the bridge: the 1840 Geographical military service map shows the mill which appear on this watercolour: could it be the “Moulin à poudre” located on the right bank of the Buech river, downwater of the bridge, that I remembered in my “Turner at Sisteron” publication (Méditerranée, 1.2/2004, p.163) and drawn on an old print of de Martellange ?
    Sincerely
    Roland Courtot
    MMSH AMU Aix en Provence

    • Professor David Hill
      March 21, 2015

      I am delighted to have this response to my article on Turner and Sisteron. Roland Courtot is a scholar at the University of Aix-Marseille, and has done extensive research on Turner’s sketches along the Riviera and in the Alpes Maritime. I am grateful to him for taking the time to compose this response. I cite his very detailed work on Sisteron in my article, and it is a pleasure to open up a conversation such as this in SublimeSites. He contributes further comment to my companion article ‘Turner at Sisteron: The Pont du Buech’.

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