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Creator William Turner of Oxford, 1789–1862, British
Title Donati's Comet
Alternate Title(s) Donati's Comet
Donati's Comet, Oxford, 7:30 p.m., 5 Oct. 1858
Date between 1858 and 1859
Medium Watercolor and gouache over graphite on moderately thick, slightly textured, cream wove paper
Dimensions Sheet: 10 1/8 x 14 3/8 inches (25.7 x 36.5 cm)
Inscribed in black ink, on back of mount [now in object file]: "No. 9 | Near Oxford, half past 7 o'clock, P.M. Octr. 5th. 1858. | William Turner, | Oxford.", Signed in black ink, lower right: "W. Turner | Oxford"
Credit Line Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Accession Number B1975.4.1767
Collection Prints and Drawings
Curatorial Comment Donati’s Comet made its first and only documented appearance in 1858. Discovered on 2 June of that year by the astronomer Giovanni Battista Donati, by mid-August the comet was visible to the naked eye and remained so until December. An extraordinary spectacle by all accounts, the comet inspired numerous works of art, notably William Dyce's haunting meditation on time, “Pegwell Bay: A Recollection of 5th October 1858” (Tate, London). A close observer of natural phenomena, William Turner of Oxford often worked out of doors and inscribed his sketches with the date and time of their execution and remarks about the meteorological conditions. Turner exhibited this drawing at the Society of Painters in Water-Colours in 1859 with the title “Near Oxford—Half-past 7 o'clock, p.m., Oct. 5, 1858”; however, for all its apparent immediacy, the watercolor is not an accurate representation of the comet as it would have appeared on that night (Olson and Pasachoff, 1998, pp. 232-33). On 5 October the comet was at its most brilliant (the “Annual Register” reported that “the population of the western world was probably out of doors gazing on the phenomenon”), passing over the huge and very bright star Arcturus at 7:11 pm, with its twin secondary plasma tails visible, but neither the star nor its tails are depicted in Turner's watercolor. Although the specificity implied in its title may seem somewhat spurious, Turner’s image is nonetheless deeply compelling, contriving to suggest both ephemerality and timelessness and inspiring reflection on humankind's relationship to the natural world. Turner habitually used a combination of watercolor and gouache to give his works their striking density, but Jane Bayard has suggested that his technique of using numerous small touches to build up the sky of “Donati’s Comet” may have been influenced by J. F. Lewis’s monumental watercolor “Frank Encampment”, which was exhibited to acclaim three years earlier (Bayard, 1981, p. 70).
     -- Gillian Forrester, 2007-01
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Subject Terms astronomy | comet | dusk | evening | fall | hills | landscape | nighttime | river | science | stars | trees

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. 290-91, no. 104, pl. 104, N5220 M552 P38 2007 OVERSIZE (YCBA)

Malcolm Cormack, Oil on water, oil sketches by British watercolorists, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 1986, p. 60, fig. 68, ND467 C67 (YCBA)

Jane Bayard, Works of splendor and imagination, The exhibition watercolor, 1770-1870, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 1981, pp. 69-70, no. 65, pl. 65, ND1928 B39 OVERSIZE (YCBA)

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