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1830 Turner in Trouble; Or, The Jousting Jessicas

The year 1830 may not have been the first time when J.M.W. Turner’s submissions to the Summer Exhibition prompted critical opprobrium; but never before had his works been greeted with such howls of outrage. Of the five paintings he showed in that year, two prompted responses of singular fury: Pilate Washing his Hands and Jessica (Fig. 1). Most reviewers—and, one presumes, the majority of the Royal Academy’s visitors—found the Pilate Washing his Hands utterly incomprehensible; though of course they were familiar with the story, they accused Turner of having forsaken his duty of faith to the biblical narrative in favour of indulging his own imagination to a degree that was at the very least excessive, arguably impertinent, quite possibly mad, and in any case for some completely inexcusable. Pilate Washing his Hands prompted terms of abuse that rarely featured in early nineteenth-century art criticism—words like “monstrous”, “execrable”, “ludicrous”, “wretched and abortive”, and “abominable”1—but the general consensus was that Jessica was even worse; it even “out Herod’s Herod”2 was how one writer put it.

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Although Turner’s Pilate Washing his Hands may well strike twenty-first-century eyes as a far more radical pictorial gambit, on the Great Room walls in 1830, the Jessica must have been much harder to miss, thanks above all to the broad expanse of brilliant yellow that surrounds the figure of Shakespeare’s heroine. It was this feature of the composition that inspired The Morning Chronicle’s famous comment, that here Shylock’s daughter looked like “a lady getting out of a large mustard-pot”—a witty barb that at least two other reviewers couldn’t resist repeating.3 William Wordsworth’s waspish response to the yellow was to say, that: “It looks to me as if the painter had indulged in raw liver until he was very unwell”.4 Meanwhile, Fraser’s Magazine proposed a similar metaphor, when it attributed the artist’s obsession with yellow to his suffering from the incurable condition of “jaundice on the retina”.5 If its golden background made the Jessica impossible to ignore, reviewers complained that the same hue also made it impossible to look at the picture for any length of time: “Well may Shylock exclaim in the words quoted in the Catalogue: ‘Jessica, shut the window, I say!’”6 Amidst this storm of critical abuse, no one seems to have noticed that Turner was trying to emulate Rembrandt’s use of dazzling colour for poetic effect, and in so doing to try and find a purely visual way of conveying the essence of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice—a play that deals with the preciousness of gold, and of a woman, Shylock’s daughter Jessica, who desires and is desired, caught between her father and her lover.7

What made Turner’s invention seem all the more transgressive was the presence in the Great Room of another picture featuring the same Shakespearian character: a Shylock and Jessica by Gilbert Stuart Newton (Fig. 2). Well-established as a popular painter of small-scale literary subjects, Newton had long been admired both for his draughtsmanship of the human figure and as a gifted colourist, whose muted palette paid proper respect to the Dutch and Venetian Old Masters—qualities that made him the perfect counterweight to Turner, who was widely accused of lacking the first of these skills altogether, and of having wasted his great talent for the second by deliberately ignoring nature in favour of self-indulgent artifice. The writer for The Athenaeum was not the only critic who felt compelled to compare the younger artist’s effort with that of his far more famous rival: Newton’s Shylock and Jessica, he claimed, was full of character, and charmingly coloured. … We consider this a very high work of art.

How different is TURNER’s “Jessica”!—A hazy old clotheswoman at a back window in Holywell-street, would show a delicate and soft-eyed Venus, compared with this daub of a drab, libelling Shakspeare [sic] out of a foggy window of King’s yellow.8

That offending hue was once again invoked by yet another commentator, who suggested that: “Mr Turner ought to blush, or turn yellow, when he looks at [Newton’s] Jessica, and compares it with his own extravagant production.”9

Turner’s Jessica and Pilate Washing his Hands were not the only pictures to excite controversy at the Academy in 1830; on the same occasion, William Etty was widely castigated for choosing a “disgraceful” story as the subject for his Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, as She Goes to Bed.10 Yet the hostile reception of Etty’s Candaules seems positively benign when compared with the torrent of hysterical language that engulfed the two Turners. The art critics of late Georgian England may have been quick to condemn what they saw as morally dubious images—but they appear to have felt far more deeply threatened by the “extravagance” of a painter who refused to play by the rules.

  1. The Gentleman’s Magazine 100, no. 1 (May 1830): 444; The Literary Gazette, and Journal of the Belles Lettres 964, 8 May 1830, 307; The Olio 5 (1830): 300.↩︎

  2. The Olio 5 (1830): 300.↩︎

  3. The originator of this remark was an anonymous writer in The Morning Chronicle, 3 May 1830; it then reappeared verbatim in The Literary Gazette, and Journal of the Belles Lettres 964, 8 May 1830, 353; and, slightly modified, in La Belle Assemblée 11 (June 1830): 272.↩︎

  4. The Wordsworth quote comes from Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, rev. edn., 2 vols (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984), 186.↩︎

  5. “Strictures on Art and Exhibitions”, Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country 2 (August 1830): 97.↩︎

  6. The Athenaeum (1830): 347; the same point, phrased somewhat differently, is made in The Olio 5 (1830): 301.↩︎

  7. For an expanded version of this comparison with Rembrandt, see David Solkin and Philippa Simpson, “Turner and the North”, in David Solkin (ed.), Turner and the Masters, exhibition catalogue (London: Tate Britain, 2009), 150–151.↩︎

  8. Solkin and Simpson, “Turner and the North”, 150–151. Holywell Street, once an alleyway just south of the Strand, was known in the 1830s as a market for second-hand clothes and pornography.↩︎

  9. The Olio 5 (1830): 382.↩︎

  10. See Sarah Burnage, Mark Hallett, and Laura Turner (eds), William Etty: Art and Controversy (York: York Museums Trust, 2011), 126–127.↩︎

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