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Creator:
Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1775–1851, British
Title:

Staffa, Fingal's Cave

Date:
1831 to 1832
Medium:
Oil on canvas
Dimensions:
Support (PTG): 35 3/4 x 47 3/4 inches (90.8 x 121.3 cm)
Inscription(s)/Marks/Lettering:

Signed, lower right: "J.M.W. Turner RA"

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
B1978.43.14
Classification:
Paintings
Collection:
Paintings and Sculpture
Subject Terms:
birds | brushstrokes | caves | cliffs | island | landscape | marine art | meteorology | science | sea | seascape | ship | smoke | steam | steamboat | storms | sunset | tourism | waves (natural events)
Associated Places:
Hebrides | Hebrides, Inner | Scotland | Staffa | United Kingdom
Access:
Not on view
Link:
https://collections.britishart.yale.edu/catalog/tms:5018
Export:
XML

J. M. W. Turner visited the remote island of Staffa, off the west coast of Scotland, in 1831 to visit the famous cavern of basalt rock known as Fingal’s Cave. He made the six-mile voyage by steamship and later claimed that a storm erupted during his return to land, recalling a moment when “the sun getting towards the horizon, burst through the raincloud, angry.” Whether an invented memory or not, Turner’s painting represents just such an incident with a steamship battling a storm off Staffa, the feeble light of its engine almost overcome by the sublime forces of nature, a contrast that seems to imply the frailty of human civilization. The painting was well received when it was exhibited in 1832 but remained with the artist until 1845, when it was purchased on behalf of James Lenox, a collector from New York, becoming the first Turner to enter an American collection.

Gallery label for installation of YCBA collection, 2016



Staffa is an uninhabited island in the Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. Famous for its many caves and strange, columnlike formations of purple-gray basalt, it was a tourist attraction even by Turner’s time. The most spectacular of the caves was dubbed Fingal’s Cave after the hero of the so-called poems of Ossian, a pastiche of northern myths and legends published in 1762–63. Fingal is a warrior king of superhuman proportions, almost a force of nature, for whom a great cave on an island lashed by the sea would seem a fitting habitation. To the Romantic imagination the cave also had the mysterious and spiritual aura of a natural temple. Turner visited Staffa on a stormy afternoon in September 1831, sailing from the larger island of Mull on a tourist paddle-steamer much like the one that appears in his painting. The tiny red dot is the ship’s furnace.

Gallery label for An American's Passion for British Art - Paul Mellon's Legacy (Yale Center for British Art, 2007-04-18 - 2007-07-29)
J.M.W. Turner had an affinity with the Scottish landscape, inspired by his deep admiration for the work of Sir Walter Scott. In 1831 he was commissioned by the Edinburgh publisher Robert Cadell to produce illustrations for an edition of Scott’s “Poetical Works”. After a memorable stay at Abbotsford with the ailing writer, who was to die the following year, Turner traveled north to Tobermory, where he boarded a steamer bound for the remote island of Staffa. Described by Scott as “one of the most extraordinary places I ever beheld,” Staffa was celebrated for its purplish-gray basaltic formations and enigmatic cavernous spaces; Fingal’s Cave, named for the Ossianic hero, was a particular object of pilgrimage for the Romantic tourist. According to Turner’s much later account, he was caught in a wild storm; upon his return to London, he commemorated his memorable voyage, choosing the moment when the sun “getting through the horizon, burst through the rain-cloud, angry” to create an extraordinarily compelling enactment of an encounter between man, symbolized by the steamship, and the unbridled forces of nature (Turner, “Correspondence”, p. 209).

In the spring of 1832 Turner exhibited “Staffa” to critical acclaim; by coincidence, Felix Mendelssohn’s “Isles of Fingal” (later retitled “Die Hebriden”) was first performed in London on 14 May of that year, though to a considerably cooler reception. Staffa remained in Turner’s studio until 1845, when it was purchased by C. R. Leslie for five hundred pounds, on behalf of the New York collector Colonel James Lenox and thus became the first painting by Turner to be sent to America. Lenox was initially displeased with his purchase, complaining that it looked “indistinct,” but Turner recommended wiping the surface of the painting, suspecting that the varnish had bloomed during its transit across the Atlantic (Butlin and Joll, 1984, p. 199). This simple solution seems to have satisfied Lenox, who went on to acquire Turner’s “Fort Vimieux” (private collection), though he was unsuccessful in persuading the recalcitrant artist to sell him the “Fighting Temeraire” (National Gallery, London), despite offering the then astronomic sum of five thousand pounds.

Gillian Forrester

John Baskett, Paul Mellon's legacy: a passion for British art : masterpieces from the Yale Center for British Art, , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, pp. 32, 33, 285, no. 91, fig. 6, pl. 91, N5220 M552 P38 2007 OVERSIZE (YCBA)



Staffa is a small uninhabited island in the Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. The place is famous for its many caves and for its strange, columnlike formations of purple-gray basalt. By Turner's time it was already a much visited tourist attraction. The most spectacular of the caves, discovered by chance by Joseph Banks in 1772, was dubbed Fingal's Cave after a central character in the poems of Ossian. Published in 1762-63, these were supposedly the writings of a third-century bard of that name, a kind of Celtic Homer, but were in fact a modern pastiche of northern myths and legends composed by James Macpherson. The Ossianic poems were wildly popular, and the main fuel for Romantic ideas of Scotland until superseded by the poems and novels of Walter Scott. In them Fingal is the warrior king of Morven, a righter of wrongs and defender of the oppressed. He is the son of a giant, a hero of superhuman proportions, almost a force of nature, for whom an awe-inspiring cave on an island lashed by the sea would seem a fitting habitation. To the Romantic imagination, the cave also had a mysterious and spiritual aura, like the temple of some primeval Ossianic religion, a natural cathedral. Scott took up this kind of imagery, likening the noise of the sea to resounding organ music, in his poem The Lord of the Isles. Here was a place, he wrote,

Where Nature herself, it seemed, would raise

A Minster to her Maker's praise!

Not for a meaner use ascend

Her columns, or her arches bend;

Nor of a theme less solemn tells

That mighty surge that ebbs and swells.

And still, between each awful pause

From the high vault an answer draws.

Turner had Scott's poem in mind when he painted Staffa, and quoted the last four lines of the passage above in the catalogue when he showed the work at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1832. Although Scott was describing the inside of the cave and Turner's view is from a distance, the general idea of waves echoing among rocks and elements responding to one another suits the painting well: storm clouds arch over the island as though imitating its outline; the cliffs take on an orange-pink tinge from the light of the setting sun. Against all this sublime natural drama, the man-made element in the scene, the paddle-steamer, appears dwarfed-suggesting the familiar Romantic idea of mankind at the mercy of fate. It steams away from the island, and the smoke from its funnel trails down toward a darker area of the cliffs that may be the entrance to the cave, as though it had come from inside. Indeed the composition slightly echoes that of a much larger and more ambitious recent work of Turner's, Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus-Homer's Odyssey (exhibited 1829; National Gallery, London), in which the Greek hero's ship has emerged from the cave of the monstrous one-eyed Cyclops. Perhaps Turner thought of his steamer in Staffa as the plucky hero of the piece, like a modern Ulysses, challenging the mighty powers of nature and-this time at least-managing to evade them.

The painting resulted from Turner's travels in Scotland in the summer of 1831. After visiting Scott at his home, Abbotsford, he proceeded north, reaching Staffa probably in early September. From Tobermory on the larger island of Mull, he took the Maid of Morven, a tourist paddle-steamer much like the one in his painting. He later recalled: "After scrambling over the rocks on the lee side of the island, some got into Fingal's Cave, others would not. It is not very pleasant or safe when the waves roll right in." By the time everyone was back on board, the weather had deteriorated and the decision was taken not to proceed beyond Staffa to Iona as planned. "To allay the displeased," he continued,

the Captain promised to steam thrice round the island in

the last trip. The sun getting towards the horizon, burst

through the rain-cloud, angry, and for wind; and so it

proved, for we were driven for shelter into Loch Ulver,

and did not get back to Tobermory before midnight.[1]

Malcolm Warner

[1] Butlin and Joll, 198

Julia Marciari-Alexander, This other Eden, paintings from the Yale Center for British Art,Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1998, pp. 148-49, no. 60, ND1314.3 Y36 1998 (YCBA)

Yale University Art Gallery 2015 - 2016 (Yale University Art Gallery, 2015-07-27 - 2015-01-05)

The Critique of Reason : Romantic Art, 1760–1860 (Yale University Art Gallery, 2015-03-06 - 2015-07-26)

Turner and the Sea (The Peabody Essex Museum, 2014-05-31 - 2014-09-01)

Turner and the Sea (National Maritime Museum, 2013-11-22 - 2014-04-21)

J. M. W. Turner - NGA (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008-06-23 - 2008-09-21)

J. M. W. Turner - NGA (Dallas Museum of Art, 2008-02-10 - 2008-05-18)

An American's Passion for British Art - Paul Mellon's Legacy (Royal Academy of Arts, 2007-10-20 - 2008-01-27)

J. M. W. Turner - NGA (National Gallery of Art, 2007-10-01 - 2008-01-06)

An American's Passion for British Art - Paul Mellon's Legacy (Yale Center for British Art, 2007-04-18 - 2007-07-29)

Art and Music in Britain: Four Encounters, 1730-1900 (Yale Center for British Art, 2006-10-05 - 2006-12-31)

Great British Paintings from American Collections: Holbein to Hockney (The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, 2002-02-01 - 2002-05-05)

Great British Paintings from American Collections: Holbein to Hockney (Yale Center for British Art, 2001-09-27 - 2001-12-30)

Art and the Empire City: New York, 1825-1861 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-09-11 - 2001-01-07)

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Art Gallery of South Australia, 1998-09-16 - 1998-11-15)

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Queensland Art Gallery, 1998-07-15 - 1998-09-06)

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1998-05-01 - 1998-07-05)

Making and Meaning - Turner's fighting Temeraire (National Gallery, London, 1995-07-05 - 1995-10-01)

Fairest Isle - The Appreciation of British Scenery 1750-1850 (Yale Center for British Art, 1989-04-12 - 1989-06-25)

Acquisitions : The First Decade 1977-1986, Yale Center for British Art , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1986, pp. 6, 8, 19, no. 53, color plate 8, N590.2 A7 OVERSIZE (YCBA)

Art, Lux, et Veritas, 2011, Personal Responses to Collections at Yale , Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 2011, pp. 24-27, no. V, V2414:1 (YCBA)

Anthony Bailey, Standing in the sun, a life of J. M. W. Turner , Sinclair-Stevenson, London, 1997, p. 276, no. 347, NJ18 T85 B35 1997 (YCBA)

Timothy J. Barringer, Art & music in Britain, four encounters, 1730-1900 (exhibition and label text) , New Haven, 2006, [p. 4], V 1699:1 (YCBA)

Timothy J. Barringer, Art & music in Britain, four encounters, 1730-1900 , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 2006, pp. 23, 26-27, 28, V 1699 (YCBA)

Timothy J. Barringer, Unto this last : two hundred years of John Ruskin, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, p. 204, fig. 101, NJ18.R895 .B37 2019 (LC) Oversize (YCBA)

John Baskett, Paul Mellon's Legacy: a Passion for British Art: Masterpieces from the Yale Center for British Art, , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, pp. 32, 33, 285, no. 91, fig. 6, pl. 91, N5220 M552 P38 2007 OVERSIZE (YCBA)

John Baskett, Staffa, Fingal's Cave by J.M.W. Turner [Website], , Accessed March 6, 2012, Available Online http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yOYcmGoc3AM

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David Blayney Brown, The art of J.M.W. Turner, Headline Book Publishing, London, 1990, pp. 138-39, NJ18 T85 B79 1990 + (YCBA)

David Blayney Brown, Turner's Modern World, Tate Publishing, London, p. 176, no. 131, NJ18.T85 A12 2020a Oversize (YCBA)

Martin Butlin, The paintings of J.M.W. Turner, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, New Haven, 1984, p.193 (v.1)..., no. 347, pl. 350, 565, NJ18 T85 B885 1984 OVERSIZE (YCBA)

David Cordingly, Turner and the Sea, Turner Society News, no. 121, Spring 2014, p. 25, NJ18 T85 T86 OVERSIZE (YCBA)

Gabriele Crepaldi, Turner, Prestel, Munich ; London, 2011, pp. 102-03, NJ18.T85 C75 2011 (YCBA)

Megan Cullen, Fairest isle, the appreciation of British scenery, 1750-1850 : [exhibition] label copy by Megan Cullen ... [et al.] Yale Center for British Art, April 12-June 25, 1989. , Yale Center for British Art, [New Haven, 1989, p. 67, no. 152, ND1354.4 F351 1989 (YCBA)

Lindsay Duguid, The Recollected Works, TLS, the Times Literary Supplement, Issue no. 5458, November 8, 2007, p, 17, Available Online : TLS Archive Also Available on microfilm : Film S748 (SML)

Judy Egerton, Turner, the Fighting Temeraire , National Gallery Publications, London, 1995, pp. 68-69, pl. 48, NJ18 T85 E34 1995 (YCBA)

Exhibition Catalogue. 1832. 64th., Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, no. 64, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1832, p. 26, no. 453, N5054 A53 v. 3 (YCBA)

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John Gage, Collected correspondence of J. M. W. Turner, With an early diary and a memoir by George Jones , Clarendon Press, Oxford, p. 209, NJ18 T85 A2 1980 (YCBA)

John Gage, J.M.W. Turner: "a wonderful range of mind", Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, p. 202, , fig. 279, NJ18 T85 G36 (LC) (YCBA)

John Gage, The Distinctness of J.M.W. Turner, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, vol. 123, 1975, pp. 448-57, U10 R81j (LSF)

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Marco Goldin, Turner e gli impressionisti, la grande storia del paesaggio moderno in Europa , Linea d'ombra srl, Conegliano [Italy], 2006, p. 58, ND192.I4 T87 2006 + (YCBA)

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J. M. W. Turner, der Maler des Lichts. , Gebr. Mann, Berlin, 1972, pp. 46-48, 113, No. 17, pl. 14, NJ18 T85 J15 (YCBA)

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Charlotte Klonk, Prospects for the Nation, recent essays in British landscape, 1750-1880 , Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, ca. 1997, pp. 219-20, fig. 82, ND1354.4 P76 1997 (YCBA)

Charlotte Klonk, Science and the perception of nature : British landscape art in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, , The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, New Haven, 1996, p. 86, fig. 57, ND1354.4 K56 1996 (YCBA)

Jeremy Lewison, Turner, Monet, Twombly, later paintings , Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 2011, pp. 58, 59, fig. 35, NJ18.T85 L53 2011 Oversize (YCBA)

Michael Lloyd, Turner, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1996, pp. 46, 53-54, NJ18 T85 L57 1996 + (YCBA)

Edward Lockspeiser, Music and painting, a study in comparative ideas from Turner to Schoenberg , Harper & Row, New York, 1973, ML3849 L62 1973 (HAAS) Temporarily shelved at MUDD (1/4/2012); copyalso available at LSF - MK3849 L62

Katherine Manthorne, Creation & renewal, views of Cotopaxi by Frederic Edwin Church , National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C., 1985, p. 27, NJ18 C47 M35 + (HAAS)

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