John Ruskin (1819-1900) labeled J. M. W. Turner’s The Fifth Plague of Egypt (1800; IMA) “a total failure” in his magnum opus Modern Painters (1843-1860). Ruskin, who is often remembered as Turner’s greatest champion, delivered this harsh criticism on the grounds that the painting’s “awkward resemblances to Claude [Lorraine] testify the want of [Turner’s] usual forceful originality.” Modern Painters, a five volume polemic, held that Turner’s chief works shed the influence of the Old Masters, particularly Claude (ca. 1604-1682), Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), and Salvator Rosa (1615-1673), whose visual formulas and adherence to naturalism held sway well into the nineteenth-century. Ruskin dismissed the artist’s early landscapes as derivative and, as a result, unconvincing. He continued his literary assault on the composition, stating: “…the pyramids look like brick-kilns, and the fire running along the ground bears a brotherly resemblance to the burning of manure.” Ruskin’s knowledge of the motif likely derived from the mezzotint after The Fifth Plague of Egypt, which was included in the Liber Studiorum (“Book of Studies,” published in 1808), and not the original painting. Nevertheless, the sentiments expressed in Modern Painters reflect Ruskin’s bias.
Ruskin’s opinion did not represent the general consensus among contemporary viewers. The debut of The Fifth Plague of Egypt at the Royal Academy’s 1800 exhibition was met with the approval of art critics, who applauded the painting’s ability to elicit an intense emotional response from its audience. The aesthetic treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), penned anonymously by the British statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797), informed the public’s taste for landscape painting. Burke argued that scenes of terror produced a stronger visceral reaction than the pleasure derived from beauty. Here, Turner uses monumental scale, a swirling vortex of clouds, and chiaroscuro to dramatic effect in his depiction of the seventh plague’s destructive hail and fire. (The public overlooked Turner’s mistitling of the subject.) Jerrold Ziff’s article “Turner and Poussin” (1963) discussed the resemblance between The Fifth Plague of Egypt and Poussin’s similarly tempestuous Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe (1650-51; Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt), and he proposed that a version of this earlier composition may have served as a model for Turner’s work. In addition, Barry Venning (Turner; 2003) aptly observes that the painting’s debt to Poussin and Richard Wilson (ca. 1713-1782) would have been commonly understood. Contrary to Ruskin’s supposition, Claude was a less obvious source for this particular work because his landscapes typically convey tranquility. The success of a painting in an academic context hinged on its fulfillment of established criteria and not, as Ruskin would later advocate, on the originality of its execution.
Artistic considerations aside, The Fifth Plague of Egypt was cast in a somewhat unusual role as the subject of a Super Bowl bet. That fortuitous intervention of the power of American football transported this famous painting to Louisiana in late March 2010. Claude’s Ideal View of Tivoli (1644) hung alongside The Fifth Plague of Egypt at the New Orleans Museum of Art for three months. The short-term loan was the result of a wager proposed by arts blogger Tyler Green and encouraged by then directors Maxwell L. Anderson of the IMA and E. John Bullard of NOMA. Juxtaposing the two paintings offered viewers complementary aesthetic models of landscape painting – the Sublime (the Turner) and the Beautiful (the Claude) – as initially discussed by Greek literary critic Longinus (1st century CE) and expanded upon by Burke in the eighteenth-century. Modern audiences were, thus, better equipped to appreciate the qualities noted by attendees of The Fifth Plague of Egypt’s 1800 exhibition.
This pairing also rebutted Ruskin’s critique by elucidating Turner’s reasons for emulating seventeenth-century landscapes. Turner was determined to elevate the category of landscape painting in the hierarchy of genres, which he achieved by reinterpreting the Old Masters and imbuing his own works with greater historical or literary detail. As a stipulation in Turner’s will, London’s National Gallery received the gift of his paintings Dido Building Carthage; or the Rise of the Carthaginian Empire (1815) and Sun Rising through Vapour (1807) on the condition that they hang in perpetuity next to Claude’s Landscape with the Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca (1648) and Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba (1648), which are also historical landscapes. In my opinion, the outcome of the Super Bowl XLIV wager – a comparison of NOMA’s Ideal View of Tivoli, a pure landscape painting, and the IMA’s biblical Fifth Plague of Egypt – improves on Turner’s original plan.