Martin Johnson HEADE  
United States of America 1819 � 1904-09-04  
Sunlight and shadow: the Newbury Marshes c.1871-75, oil on canvas National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. John Wilmerding Collection (Promised Gift). Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
J M W TURNER | The Red Rigi

Great Britain 1775 – 1851
The Red Rigi
(NGV Inv.No. 1704-4; Wilton No.1525) 1842
watercolour, wash and gouache with some scratching out
30.5 (h) x 45.8 (w) cm
frame 51.8 (h) x 64.5 (w) x 3.3 (d) cm
Felton Bequest 1947 1704-4 National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
VIEW: Article |
Turner to Monet

Turner had never made any drawings [watercolours] like these before, and never made any like them again … He is not showing his hand in these, but his heart.1

An inveterate traveller, Turner visited Switzerland on his first continental tour in 1802, during the short-lived Treaty of Amiens. He was greatly inspired by the sublime qualities of the alpine landscape, although he did not return until 1836. However during his later years he visited continental Europe regularly, travelling through Switzerland annually from 1841 to 1844. The resulting watercolours are acknowledged as some of his most important works; a final flourish in his extraordinary output.

In the late summer of 1841 Turner spent time in Lucerne, exploring its surrounding mountains, valleys and lakes. One of the best-known local features is the Rigi, a mountain comparatively small in height (1798 metres) but with a dominant presence to the east of the town across Lake Lucerne. Unlike the numerous tourists who ascended the Rigi to witness sunset or sunrise from the summit, Turner was captivated by the mountain rather than its view, and was preoccupied with capturing the transitory effects of light and atmospheric conditions in numerous colourful wash sketches.

On his return to London Turner presented his dealer, Thomas Griffith, with a new format for marketing his art, providing him with fifteen small sketches from which his patrons could make selections to be worked up into finished watercolours, together with four such completed ‘specimens’ to demonstrate the result. The four included two contrasting views of the Rigi, one now known as The Blue Rigi,2in which the looming mass is shadowed by the radiant dawn light emanating from behind it, and this work, The Red Rigi, in which the mountain’s heights glow ethereally pink with the last rays of the setting sun. In both, Turner explored the reflections and refractions in the foreground water and the activity on the lake’s surface, probably viewed from his hotel window. The Red Rigi was purchased by his Scottish friend and patron H.A.J. Munro of Novar, who acquired half the resulting ten watercolours, commissioning another dawn view, known as The Dark Rigi.3Turner’s great advocate John Ruskin first saw The Red Rigi displayed at Griffith’s salesroom and recalled ‘such a piece of colour as had never come my way before’: within a few years his father had acquired it from Munro.4In 1851 Ruskin senior wrote to his son in Venice informing him of Turner’s death, saying that The Red Rigi ‘fed and soothed me like a Dead March all this evening …’.5

In 2007 the three finished Rigi watercolours were united for the first time, exhibited at Tate Britain, along with their sample sketches, additional studies and paintings based around Lucerne. Varying noticeably from their original sketches, the watercolours demonstrate the remarkable level of sophistication to which Turner had raised the medium. Skilfully combining stippling, hatching, scratching back to create highlights, washes and gouache, and with incomparable colouristic ability, Turner evokes a luminous grandeur to the Swiss vista that he studied with such contemplation.

Alisa Bunbury


1 John Ruskin in E.T. Cook and A. Wedderburn (eds), The works of John Ruskin, vol. xiii, London: George Allen, 1904, p. 484.

2 Collection of the Tate Britain.

3 Private collection, United Kingdom.

4 John Ruskin in Ruskin on pictures: volume 1, Turner at the National Gallery and in Mr Ruskin’s collection, E.T. Cook (ed.), London: George Allen, 1902, p. 361.

5 John James Ruskin to John Ruskin, 21 December 1851, quoted in Ian Warrell, Through Switzerland with Turner: Ruskin’s first selection from the Turner Bequest, London: Tate Gallery Publishing, 1995, p. 17.