The young J. M. W. Turner made his first visit to Switzerland in 1802. Over the following decade the alpine landscape provided the subject for many of his oil paintings and watercolours. An enduring affinity with the spectacular scenery of the Alps inspired his subsequent visits in the early 1840s. Turner’s late watercolours evoke the serenity and immensity of the Swiss landscape in some of the most compelling and radiant compositions of his career. One of Switzerland’s most famous mountains, the Rigi towers over the lake to the east of Lucerne. At a mere 1780 metres, it is not one of the loftiest peaks in the Swiss Alps, but the glorious uninterrupted views afforded by its isolated location and the beauty of the surrounding scenery have long attracted adventurous tourists.
Turner was captivated by the picturesque town of Lucerne and its lake. He visited the location each summer between 1841 and 1845, staying at the lakeside inn, La Cygne (The Swan). From his vantage point on the lake’s northern arm, Turner made numerous contemplative studies of the Rigi in pencil and watercolour. Sketching the mountain at different times of day, he captured dramatic and fleeting colour changes on its slopes, and recorded the altering moods of the scene under different light conditions.
The Red Rigi comes from the first of four sets of highly finished watercolours of alpine scenes produced by Turner between 1842 and 1848. The compositions recall the artist’s Swiss sketches, but were actually based upon a group of freely drawn and expressive ‘sample studies’ produced in London. These studies were proffered by Turner’s agent, Thomas Griffith, to prospective collectors in an attempt to woo commissions for ‘finished’ watercolours. In addition, Turner produced four finished specimens in advance of the remainder of the first set. These include the euphoric Red Rigi, depicting the mountain bathed in the warm glow of the setting sun, and its counterpart, The Blue Rigi (Tate, London), an equally evocative study of the lake and distant slopes illuminated by the gathering dawn.
It is interesting to note that Turner’s late alpine watercolours, now universally acknowledged as some of his most important works, were greeted by many contemporary collectors with a resounding lack of enthusiasm. Of the twenty-six finished compositions completed between 1842 and 1845, twenty were acquired by only two enlightened supporters, H. A. J. Munro of Novar and John Ruskin, who each owned this watercolour.
Text by Nick Williams from Prints and Drawings in the International Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 86.