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Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1775–1851
Vesuvius in Eruption
between 1817 and 1820
Materials & Techniques:
Watercolor, gum, scraping out on medium, slightly textured, cream wove paper, mounted on thick, smooth, cream wove paper
Sheet: 11 1/4 x 15 5/8 inches (28.6 x 39.7 cm)

Inscribed in graphite, verso, on mount, center: "<37> (encircled)"; in graphite, verso, center: "Mount Vesuvius in Eruption | J M W Turner R.a 1817"

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
Drawings & Watercolors
Prints and Drawings
Subject Terms:
boats | geology | Grand Tour | landscape | lava | mountain | science | smoke | volcano
Associated Places:
Campania | Europe | Italy | Napoli | Vesuvius
Accessible by appointment in the Study Room [Request]
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IIIF Manifest:

Joseph Mallord William Turner’s dramatic representation of Mount Vesuvius is one of numerous artistic iterations of erupting volcanoes from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century. Turner visited Naples and ascended Vesuvius in 1819; however, he never witnessed an eruption firsthand and this composition likely preceded his Italian sojourn. His imagined conception of the natural disaster reflects an interest in the aesthetics of the sublime as well as a subtle awareness of breakthroughs in geology. The study of volcanoes in the eighteenth century contributed to a paradigmatic shift in the scientific community, specifically surrounding the age of the earth and the evolution of its landmasses.

Gallery label for the Critique of Reason: Romantic Art (Yale Center for British Art, 2015-03-06 - 2015-07-26)
The eighteenth-century fascination with volcanoes, and Vesuvius in particular, deepened in the nineteenth century, fuelled by the eruptions of Vesuvius in 1794, 1807, 1819, and 1822. Turner was alert to both the intellectual and aesthetic possibilities that the evolving discipline of geology offered; he cultivated friendships with pioneering geologists, including John MacCulloch and Charles Stokes, and his sketchbooks contain detailed records of geological phenomena. During the second decade of the nineteenth century Turner, a keen proponent of the Sublime, had his own burst of volcanic activity. In 1815 he exhibited his canvas “The Eruption of the Souffrier Mountains, in the Island of St Vincent” (Butlin and Joll, 1984, no. 132); two years later the print publisher W. B. Cooke commissioned Turner to make companion watercolors of Vesuvius, showing the volcano in eruption and repose (Wilton, “Turner”, 1979, nos. 698–99). This watercolor, the third of the group and the most spectacular, would also have been made around the same time as Cooke's drawings, if the inscription on the back, which is not in Turner's hand, is correct. Turner did not visit Italy until 1819, and he may have based the Vesuvius drawings on the work of another draftsman, most likely James Hakewill, whose sketches Turner used for a group of watercolors commissioned as designs for Hakewill’s publication “Picturesque Tour of Italy”. Although the Center’s Vesuvius drawing was neither exhibited nor engraved, its extremely high degree of finish suggests that Turner had made it for a specific purpose, perhaps as a commission. Although Turner's patron Walter Fawkes owned the watercolor, it was not included in Fawkes’s exhibition of his collection at his London house in 1819, which featured his outstanding holdings of Turner’s work. The work was probably acquired by Fawkes (and possibly even made) sometime later.

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, p. 284, no. 89, pl. 89, N5220 M552 P38 2007 OVERSIZE (YCBA)

Eruptions: Pompeii and Santorini (Scuderie del Quirinale, 2019-10-05 - 2020-01-19) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

The Critique of Reason : Romantic Art, 1760–1860 (Yale University Art Gallery, 2015-03-06 - 2015-07-26) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

An American's Passion for British Art - Paul Mellon's Legacy (Royal Academy of Arts, 2007-10-20 - 2008-01-27) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Paul Mellon's Legacy : A Passion for British Art (Yale Center for British Art, 2007-04-18 - 2007-07-29) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

An American's Passion for British Art - Paul Mellon's Legacy (Yale Center for British Art, 2007-04-18 - 2007-07-29) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Turner and the Sublime (British Museum, 1981-05-15 - 1981-09-20) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Turner and the Sublime (Yale Center for British Art, 1981-02-11 - 1981-04-19) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Turner and the Sublime (Art Gallery of Ontario, 1980-11-01 - 1981-01-04) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Visions of Vesuvius (Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 1978-04-14 - 1978-07-16) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

English Landscape (Paul Mellon Collection) 1630-1850 (Yale Center for British Art, 1977-04-19 - 1977-07-17) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Art, Lux, et Veritas 2012, Personal Responses to Collections at Yale , Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 2012, pp. 38-41, V 2414:2 [ORBIS]

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, p. 284, no. 89, pl. 89, N5220 M552 P38 2007 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Martin Butlin, The paintings of J.M.W. Turner, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, New Haven, 1984, pp. 96-97, no. 132, pl. 136, NJ18 T85 B885 1984 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Catalogue of the art treasures of the United Kingdom : collected at Manchester in 1857., Bradbury and Evans, London, p. 188, no. 319, N5056 .M35 M25 1857 (YCBA) Also available in Hathitrust [YCBA]

Emily Dickinson Museum, Angles of a Landscape, Emily Dickinson: Seeing New Englandly , 2010, Not Available at Yale

A. J. Finberg, The life of J. M. W. Turner, R.A. : with a supplment by Hilda F. Finberg, , Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1961, pp. 273-4, 482, no. 256, NJ18 T85 F55 1961 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Norbert Göttler, Eine rechte Malerluft, ein wahres Malerlicht, Künstlerkolonien, Malerorte und pittoreske Landpartien in Oberbayern , Bayerland, Dachau, 2011, pp. 8-10, Not Available at Yale

J. M. W. Turner : A selection of paintings and watercolors in the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 1983, pp. 10, 14, no. 12, pl. 10, NJ18 .T85 C68 + Oversize (YCBA) [YCBA]

Jonathan Mayne, Taste in Water-Colour, Apollo, v. 77, no. 14, April 1963, p. 293, fig. 6, N1 A54 + (YCBA) Second copy available in Vertical File : V1168 [YCBA]

Painting in England 1700-1850 : collection of Mr. & Mrs. Paul Mellon : Exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, , 1,2, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA, 1963, p. 95, no. 142, ND466 V57 v.1-2 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Paul Mellon's Legacy : a passion for British art [large print labels], , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, v. 2, no. 89, N5220 M552 P381 2007 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Eric Shanes, The life and masterworks of J.M.W. Turner, Parkstone Press, New York, 2008, p. 135, NJ18 T85 S441 2008 + OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

The critique of reason : Romantic art, 1760-1860 : March 6-July 26, 2015, Yale University Art Gallery, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 2015, [pp. 2-3], fig. 2, V 2574 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Walter Thornbury, Life of J.M.W. Turner , R.A. founded on letters and papers furnished by his friends and fellow-academicians, with 8 coloured illustrations after Turner's originals and 2 woodcuts , Chatto & Windus, London, 1904, p. 590, NJ18 T85 T38 1904 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Raleigh Trevelyan, The shadow of Vesuvius : Pompeii AD 79, London, 1976, pp. 82-3, 127, fig. 61, DG70 .P4 T73 (SML) [ORBIS]

Ian Warrell, J.M.W. Turner : the making of a master, Tate Publishing, London, 2013, pp. 149, 152, fig. 53, NJ18.T85 T3652 2013 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Ian Warrell, J.M.W. Turner, Tate Publishing, London, 2007, p. 255, fig. 58, NJ18 T85 A12 2007 + (YCBA) [YCBA]

L. Pearce Williams, Album of science : The nineteenth century, Scribner, New York, 1978, pp. 141-3, fig. 217, Q125.6 .W54 1978 + Oversize (LSF) [ORBIS]

Andrew Wilton, The life and work of J.M.W. Turner, Academy Editions, London, 1979, pp. 137, 381, No. 697, pl. 145, NJ18 T85 +W577 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

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