'The subject matter – the Alps during a violent storm – is the perfect image of the sublime.'

Alex Farquharson

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army crossing the Alps (1812) by J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851), 57½in by 93½in, Tate Collection

Alex Farquharson says:

At Tate Britain, we’re lucky to have the vast Turner Bequest. It’s hard to settle on just one, but this has it all. He was the ultimate painter of the sublime – the Romantic fixation with vast natural forces that leave us feeling powerless and small. At nearly 8ft across, the painting is itself vast. The subject matter – the Alps during a violent storm – is the perfect image of the sublime. Its overpowering effect has as much to do with what Turner leaves out as what he depicts: we fear all the more what we cannot see and understand. The painting is also a double history painting: Hannibal crossing the Alps is a metaphor for Napoleon doing the same just 11 years prior to when Turner painted it – both armies were themselves sublime forces. The tiny, sharp silhouette of the elephant is an amazing device that switches this great landscape painting into a highly original history painting.

Alex Farquharson is Director of Tate Britain

John McEwen comments on Snow Storm:

Hannibal (247bc–about 181bc), the Carthaginian general, has always been considered one of history’s greatest military commanders. He lived when the Punic Wars settled the dominance of the Western Mediterranean, previously conducted from Carthage, near modern Tunis, the principal Mediterranean city.

In the second Punic War, Hannibal invaded the Roman Republic (Italy) via Carthage’s European province (Spain), marching an army, which included war elephants, across both the Pyrenees and Alps.

When Napoleon took his army across the Alps to defeat the Austrians – Britain’s allies – at Marengo in 1800, the parallel with Hannibal inspired his Court painter David’s monumental equestrian portrait, Napoleon at the St Bernard Pass. A brief truce in 1802 allowed Turner to see the portrait in Paris and he journeyed on to Italy, visiting the Val d’Aosta pass, one of Hannibal’s supposed routes.

In 1810, while staying with his friend and patron Walter Fawkes at Farnley Hall in North Yorkshire, he sketched a squall and told one of Fawkes’s sons: ‘There Hawkey; in two years you will see this again, and call it Hannibal crossing the Alps.’ This painting duly appeared and was hung to Turner’s satisfaction, after much argument, at the Royal Academy’s 1812 summer exhibition.

In the catalogue, he quoted some anonymous verse, in fact written by himself: ‘Look’d on the sun with hope; – low, broad, and wan/While the fierce archer of the downward year/Stains Italy’s blanch’d barrier with storms./From Fallacies of Hope.’

The barely visible elephant on a far horizon only adds to the elemental majesty of the scene.