Explorations in the footsteps of Turner, Cotman and Ruskin with Professor David Hill
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.
About an hour after sunset on 12 April 2014 I took the picture below.
Actually that’s not quite true; the picture I took in fact was this:
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:
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.
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.
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: