Turner regularly sent incomplete canvases to the Royal Academy or the British Institution exhibitions, and then finished the pictures in a last-minute frenzy, often using the so-called Varnishing Day prior to an exhibition’s opening to add vital details that made clear an intended subject. Given this practice, it is not known for certain whether this celebrated painting is a study of atmospheric effects, complete in itself, or a background field of colour and texture awaiting finishing touches.
Recently, Turner scholars have even begun to question the subject matter traditionally ascribed to this highly atmospheric study. This painting has long been held to depict the Val d’Aosta in the Italian Alps, in the Piedmont region just across the border from Mont Blanc in France. Turner scholars now propose, however, that it actually shows the falls on the Rhine River at Schaffhausen, a town in northern Switzerland that Turner visited on several occasions. In 1802 he had sketched the spectacular falls at Schaffhausen, using them as a motif for later compositions; and a later series of watercolours from 1841, also focussed upon the heady roar and spray of these cascading waterfalls. Proximity to these falls at Schaffhausen perhaps brought to mind for Turner the famous dictum formulated by Edmund Burke in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origen of Our Ideas for the Sublime and Beautiful (1756): “Whatever is in any sort terrible … is a source of the sublime … When danger and pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are, delightful, as we every day experience”. This was just the sort of thrill that visitors to Schaffhausen in Turner’s time could experience. At Schaffhausen, the 1846 John Murray Hand-Book for Travellers in Switzerland stated: “the traveller may enjoy the full grandeur of this hell of waters”.
Changing the location of the National Gallery of Victoria’s much loved painting from the Val d’Aosta to the waterfalls at Schaffhausen invites us to perceive this majestic work anew. While the painting itself remains materially unchanged, its effect upon the viewer is quite different when one’s imagination replaces the eerie silence of cloud and mist in an Alpine valley with the crash and turbulence of water cascading over rocks spanning a swiftly flowing river.
For more information concerning Turner’s various visits to and depictions of the falls at Schaffhausen, see Marjorie Munsterberg, ‘J.M.W. Turner’s Falls at Schaffhausen’, Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, vol. 44, no. 2, 1985, pp. 24-31.