The Fifth Plague of Egypt

Joseph Mallord William Turner (English, 1775-1851)

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This dark, tempestuous painting marks the rise of Turner as a full-fledged Romantic painter. Relying on vast scale, dynamic movement, and dramatic subject, his composition appeals primarily to the emotions to communicate its message. Turner’s motive for painting this canvas, which was his first major work exhibited at the Royal Academy, may have been a desire to impress British critics and viewers with his ability to handle serious themes. However, it does appear that the young painter mistitled his picture, as this canvas actually depicts the seventh plague of Egypt, when Moses stretched his arms toward heaven and thunder, hail, and fire rained on the pharaoh and his people.

Indianapolis Museum of Art: Highlights of the Collection (2005)

J.M.W. Turner submitted this painting, the largest the twenty-four-year-old artist had yet attempted, to the prestigious annual Royal Academy exhibition in London in 1800. It was his first venture into the most venerated category of his craft: history painting, which celebrated significant events, usually based on a well-known written source. Turner depicted the biblical verse describing the seventh plague of Egypt, which was hail, rather than the fifth, the disease of livestock, as his title suggests. With this large-scale, epic subject, Turner intended to demonstrate his virtuosity. Yet, perhaps because of his background as a landscape painter, The Fifth Plague of Egypt is a scene devoted more to the action of nature than to human activity. Although the figure of Moses can be discerned at lower right, he is cast in shadow and dwarfed by the vastness of the setting. The dramatic color effects Turner used to capture the thunder, hail, and fire become the true subject of this exotic scene.

Turner's star rose rapidly in London, in part due to the success of his early contributions to the Royal Academy exhibitions. He never ceased to champion pure landscape painting, but with time his palette grew more brilliant and his compositions more daring.

And Moses stretched forth his hands toward heaven, and the Lord sent thunder and hail, and the fire ran along upon the ground. . . .
-Exodus 9:23

A Demonstration of Mastery

During the 1800 Academy exhibition, Dolbadarn Castle was overshadowed by The Fifth Plague of Egypt, a larger painting and the first overtly historical landscape Turner showed at the Academy. It was bought, and possibly commissioned, by William Beckford, a man of immense wealth and extravagant tastes who had been introduced to Turner by his friend Sir Richard Colt Hoare. Beckford's appetite for the sublime extended beyond paintings to the creation of a vast gothic edifice known as Fonthill Abbey, of which Turner made several sketches in 1799. The critics rightly saw The Fifth Plague of Egypt as a demonstration of mastery, and overlooked the fact that Turner had actually depicted the hail and fire of the seventh plague, rather than the murrain of the fifth as the title has it. For the reviewer of the St. James Chronicle it was in ‘the grandest and most sublime stile of composition', adding that ‘the whole of the conception is that of a great mind'. No subject was more terrifying than the wrath of God, and, as the anonymous critic implied, it took an artist of great power to dramatize human powerlessness so effectively. In such works as Morning amongst the Coniston Fells, Turner had discovered that a degree of judicious obscurity and looseness of handling helped to promote an impression of awe, and these are intensified in The Fifth Plague of Egypt. Although the theme is one of chaos and destruction, the depends primarily for its impact on a dramatic but carefully composed effect of light and shadow, in which the light within the growing vortex of angry clouds on the right is balanced by the distant view of daylight and blue sky on the left. In a stroke of pure daring Turner makes the pyramid in the centre the fulcrum of the composition, and lights it so brilliantly that it stands out as a stark, semi-abstract triangle of white paint.

Venning, Barry. Turner (Art & Ideas). London: Phaidon Press, 2003, pp. 52-53; 121-124.

Ruskin's Critique

"…When local character of this classical kind is attempted, the painter is visibly cramped: awkward resemblances to Claude testify the want of his usual forceful originality: in the tenth Plague of Egypt, he makes us think of Belzoni rather than of Moses; the fifth is a total failure, the pyramids look like brick-kilns, and the fire running along the ground bears brotherly resemblance to the burning of manure."

Ruskin, John. Modern Painters. 4 vols. Original 1843. New York: Wiley & Halstead, 1858, 1:128.

A Debt to Poussin

“[Turner's] debt to Poussin's art was much greater in The Tenth Plague of Egypt, exhibited in 1802. In this picture the great masses of architecture and the emphasis upon horizontals and verticals created by the buildings are most clearly in Poussin's manner. Even the more sublime details, for example the bending trees, gesticulating figures and the lightning flash in the upper left corner, recall Poussin. The same dramatic elements can be found in Poussin's Pyramus and Thisbe, a fact which Turner pointed out in his Background lecture. Since Turner in 1802 probably knew the Earl of Ashburnham's Pyramus and Thisbe, we should not overlook the possibility of its actually being an important source for the sublime drama in The Tenth Plague and, for that matter, the earlier Fifth Plague.”

Ziff, Jerrold. “Turner and Poussin,” The Burlington Magazine 105, No. 724 (July 1963), pp. 316-317.


Purchased from the artist in April 1800 by William Beckford [1759-1844] of Fonthill;
Fonthill Sale, held at Fonthill Splendens, Wiltshire, England, 24 August 1807, no. 581;
Bought by Henry Jeffrey.{1}
Thomas Tudor [1785-1855], Wyesham near Monmouth;{2}
Thomas Griffith, London, England, Turner's agent, in 1847.{3}
George Young, by 1853;
Sale at (Christie's, London) in 1866;{4}
purchased by Earl Grosvenor in 1866 and until at least 1871.{5}
Sir J.C. [John Charles] Robinson [1824-1913], London;{6}
bought from him by Sir Francis Cook [1817-1901], Doughty House, Richmond Hill, Surrey, England in 1876;{7}
by descent within the Cook family until 1951 when purchased by (Thomas Agnew and Sons, London);
Sir Alexander Korda [1893-1956], London, in 1951;{8}
sold to (John Mitchell, London) in 1955;{9}
purchased for the John Herron Art Institute, Indianapolis, Indiana, now the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, through Kurt Pantzer with funds from the Lilly family in 1955 (55.24).
{1} This early provenance appears in Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The paintings of J.M. W. Turner, New Haven, 1977, volume I, catalogue no. 13 (illustrated). Unless otherwise noted, all subsequent owners listed below also appear in Butlin and Joll. On the Fonthill Sale and Jeffrey's purchases, see Robert J. Gemmett, The old palace of tertian fevers:’The Fonthill Sale of 1807,” Journal of the History of Collections, 2010, pp. 1-12.
{2} See Martin F. Krause, Turner in Indianapolis, Indianapolis, 1997, no. 26, p. 98. Tudor's ownership was first noted by Margery Probyn, "A Letter to the Editor," Turner Society News, no. 74 (December 1996), p. 13.
{3} Ibid. Probyn had access to Tudor's diary where the sale to Griffith is recorded.
{4} Christie's, London, Modern pictures, 19 May 1866, lot 26.
{5} See the article Modern Pictures, The Times (London), 21 May 1866 which identifies the purchaser as Earl Grosvenor.
{6} See Robinson obituary in The Times (London), 11 April 1913. He is often characterized as an advisor to Cook in building his collection.
{7} On the Cook family collection, see Elon Danziger, The Cook collection, its founder and its inheritors, The Burlington Magazine, July 2004, pp. 444-458. See also the "Concordance of Cook collection paintings" available at (8/30/11).
{8} See Korda’s statement on Bill of Sale, in IMA Historical Files (55.24). Perhaps Agnew's only served as an intermediary.
{9} See Bill of Sale, in IMA Historical Files (55.24). Mitchell may have served only as an agent.

Object Information

Joseph Mallord William Turner (English, 1775-1851)
creation date
oil on canvas
48 x 72 in. (canvas)
56 x 80 x 2-1/4 in. (framed)
accession number
credit line
Gift in memory of Evan F. Lilly
Public Domain
European Painting and Sculpture 1800-1945

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