Joseph Mallord William Turner

Collection in Focus: Joseph Mallord William Turner

Take a closer look at J.M.W. Turner’s remarkable work The Pass of St. Gotthard, near Faido with Jennifer Tonkovich, Eugene and Clare Thaw Curator of Drawings and Prints, as she shares its unique connections to art criticism.

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Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Pass of St. Gotthard, near Faido
Watercolor over graphite.
11 15/16 x 18 1/2 inches (303 x 469 mm)
Thaw Collection.

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Turner executed this drawing in 1843 on commission from John Ruskin, who became his most ardent patron. The subject is the mountain pass at St. Gotthard, in the Swiss alps between Lucerne and Lugano. Every spring the ice melts at St. Gotthard's Pass near Faido and turns the Ticino River into a torrent that sweeps rocks downstream. Turner visited the region in August 1842 on one of his annual trips to Switzerland between 1841 and 1845. As was his practice at the time, he returned with quick pencil sketches made on the spot, working them into what he called sample studies to show to prospective clients for whom he would produce a finished watercolor.
In executing the present drawing from its sample study, in the Tate Gallery, London (inv. D36055), Turner widened the view, filling in the newly created space at the right edge with a stretch of road that may have originated in a sketch made on his first visit in 1802. He vertically compressed the design, eliminating the sky, and lowering the viewpoint, so that one feels about to be swept into the foreground torrent. He also added multiple outlines to the steep mountain slopes, creating what Paul Walton called “exaggerated rhythms” in the landscape. The result is a work of art that gives the visual form to the awesome and terrifying power of nature.
Ruskin was enthralled with the drawing, calling it “the greatest work [Turner] produced in the last period of his art.” In the hope of understanding how topography had been transformed into art, in 1845 Ruskin traveled to Faido and made studies of what he saw. He was surprised to discover that “the mountains, compared with Turners colossal conception, look pigmy & poor.” A decade later, in the fourth volume of Modern Painters, the drawing, reproduced as an etching, became the focus of a lengthy discourse in which Ruskin attempted to reconcile nature and art. The drawing continued to occupy Ruskin, and late in life he executed a watercolor copy, also in the Thaw Collection (Rocks in Unrest, 2017.231).
The monumentality and sublimity of nature attracted Turner early in his career. In The Upper Falls of the Reichenbach, Rainbow, a drawing of about 1810 in the Yale Center for British Art (inv. B1977.14.4702), one sees in somewhat less abstract form the vertiginous viewpoint and swirling rush of water of the present drawing.


Watermark: none.

John Ruskin (1819-1900), Brantwood, Lancs.; the Kennedy collection, presumably Mrs. Myles Kennedy, Brantwood, Lancs. or William Sloane Kennedy (1850-1929) [according to Cook and Wedderburn 1904, XIII: 456, n2); sold in 1895; George Coats, Baron Glentenar (1849-1918), Aberdeen; by descent; private collection, United Kingdom; Thos. Agnew & Sons Ltd., London; Eugene V. (1927-2018) and Clare E. (1924-2017) Thaw, New York.
Associated names: 

Ruskin, John, 1819-1900, former owner.
Coats, George, former owner.
Thaw, Eugene Victor, former owner.
Thaw, Clare, former owner.


The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, NY, "Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection", 2017. Exh. cat., no. 389, repr.
Denison, Cara D. et al. Drawings from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Victor Thaw. Part II. New York : Pierpont Morgan Library, 1985, no. 32 (also in Thaw III, no. 59)
Denison, Cara D. et al. The Thaw Collection : Master Drawings and New Acquisitions. New York : Pierpont Morgan Library, 1994, no. 59.
E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds., The Works of John Ruskin, XIII, London, 1904, p. 456, n.2.
From Leonardo to Pollock: Master drawings from the Morgan Library. New York: Morgan Library, 2006, cat. no. 63, p. 134-135.