One of the greatest British narrative painters of the nineteenth century was JMW Turner (1775-1851), who today is almost exclusively known for his landscapes. As a young and brilliant student at the Royal Academy Schools in London from around 1789, and despite his long career painting landscapes and topographic views, he was taught that history painting was the queen of the genres, and painted narrative works even to his death in 1851. This article shows a small selection of his narrative paintings, from early in his career to one of his most famous works from 1840.
Turner painted The Goddess of Discord Choosing the Apple of Contention in the Garden of the Hesperides in 1806. This shows Eris, goddess of discord, as an older woman, dressed in a red skirt, in the centre foreground. She is choosing between two golden apples which have just been picked from the surrounding garden by the Hesperides. Eris went on to use that golden apple as the prize for the judgement of Paris, so precipitating the Trojan War.
This is a classical narrative in a landscape, of the form developed by Nicolas Poussin nearly two centuries before.
Twenty years later, Turner’s Vision of Medea (1828) is the first in a series of more modern attempts to tell the story of the sorceress Medea, and one of Turner’s few uses (perhaps his only use) of multiplex narrative. Turner had stayed in Rome with Sir Charles Eastlake during the autumn and winter of 1828, where he painted his View of Orvieto, Regulus, and this work, together with several other paintings whose identity is less certain.
He exhibited them there to the outrage of critics, and the puzzlement of the public. Turner didn’t show this painting at the Royal Academy until 1831, where it was considered to be a wonderful “combination of colour”, but generally incomprehensible.
In the middle of the canvas, Medea is stood in the midst of an incantation to force Jason’s return. In the foreground are the materials which she is using to cast her spell: flowers, snakes, and other supplies of a sorceress. Seated by her are the Fates. In the upper right, Medea is shown again in a flash-forward to her fleeing Corinth in a chariot drawn by dragons, the bodies of her children thrown down after their deaths.
The following year, Turner painted what must be the finest visual account of the Polyphemus episode in Homer’s Odyssey. The morning after he blinds Polyphemus, Ulysses and his men tie themselves to the undersides of the sheep so he can’t feel them escaping. Recognising that he has lost his captives, Polyphemus calls out for help from the other Cyclops, telling them that ‘Nobody’ has hurt him. The other Cyclops therefore don’t come to his aid. As Ulysses and his crew sail off into the dawn, they deride the blind Polyphemus, who prays to his father, Poseidon (Neptune), for revenge, and throws huge rocks towards the fleeing ships.
Turner’s depiction is faithful to the narrative of the Odyssey, although it’s hard to discern the distant form of Polyphemus, shown high on the top of the cliffs towards the left.
He shows the entire crew, led by Ulysses brandishing two large flags, arrayed up the masts and rigging to deride the blinded giant (here at the top left). The orange flag on the mainmast bears the Greek letters Οὖτις (Outis, meaning nobody, or in Latin Nemo), the name that Ulysses told Polyphemus was his.
Turner had worked on rough sketches for this painting as early as 1807, if that sketchbook has been accurately dated, and the finished painting was exhibited in the Royal Academy show of 1829.
In 1837, Turner painted another classical legend, of the hapless romance of Leander (man) and Hero (woman). She was a priestess of Aphrodite, living in a temple at Sestos on the European side of the Hellespont (now the Dardanelles in Turkey). He lived in Abydos on the opposite side of the strait, now in Asia Minor. Leander fell in love with Hero, and each night through the summer and autumn swam across the dangerous waters to be with her, consummating their relationship. To guide him across, Hero lit a torch at the top of her tower.
One night, a storm blew up, and extinguished the light as Leander was swimming across the rough waters. Leander lost his way, and was drowned in front of Hero. Seeing his corpse, she threw herself from the tower, to die and rejoin him.
Turner’s painting again adheres quite faithfully to the traditional narrative, although it’s a composite containing elements of both the precursor to the climax, and the climax itself. Hero’s temple at Sestos is on the left, with a couple of towers visible on the coast, neither of which contains a light. Leander is seen swimming across the narrow straight (its width shown far smaller than in reality), from right to left, to join Hero. Behind him on the bank at Abydos are spirits emerging, indicating Leander’s imminent death.
Hero, though, is shown holding up a lantern, which doesn’t appear in the original written account.
Turner exhibited this painting in 1837, providing his own verse to tell the story, which was well known and referenced severally by Shakespeare. In the latter’s play As You Like It (Act IV, Scene I), the character Rosalind summarises the tale thus:
“Leander, he would have lived many a fair year, though Hero had turned nun, if it had not been for a hot midsummer night; for, good youth, he went but forth to wash him in the Hellespont and being taken with the cramp was drowned and the foolish coroners of that age found it was ‘Hero of Sestos.’ But these are all lies: men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.”
Its most succinct summary was in an Epigram by John Donne:
“Both robbed of air, we both lie in one ground,
Both whom one fire had burnt, one water drowned.”
However it’s more likely that Turner’s painting was based on Lord Byron, who swam the Hellespont himself in May 1810, and described it in his Written After Swimming From Sestos To Abydos.
Turner’s curious composite narrative of Phryne Going to the Public Baths as Venus: Demosthenes Taunted by Aeschines from 1838 apparently combines two legends about courtesans of the day.
Phryne was a famous courtesan born in about 371 BCE, best-remembered for her legendary disrobing during her trial for impiety, painted by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Here she is celebrating the festival of Poseidon by going naked to bathe in the sea, as if she were the goddess Venus.
At her trial, Phryne was defended by the orator Hypereides rather than Demosthenes, who lived between 384-322 BCE, so was a contemporary. Somewhere among the crowd, Demosthenes is supposed to be taunting his rival Aeschines (389-314 BCE) for being the son of a courtesan (but not Phryne), which would seem an unwarranted ad hominem, and isn’t mentioned by Plutarch.
Turner was more than capable of telling his own narratives in paintings, of which the best example is this famous depiction of the vile and inhumane aspects of the slave trade. Inevitably there are several different accounts of the background to this painting. What is clear is that it wasn’t uncommon practice for slaves being shipped from Africa to the Americas to be thrown overboard, for various reasons. One captain, of the ship Zong, wrote an account of doing this in 1781, when a tropical storm was blowing up. Recognising the potential loss of value in his human cargo, he threw the sick and the dying overboard, because he could claim only for slaves ‘lost at sea’, as they were during the storm.
Turner shows a threatening sky and a violent sea, with the ship in the middle distance, silhouetted against the blood-red sky. The foreground is filled with the ghastly evidence of the slaves who were cast overboard.
Seen in amongst a feeding frenzy of fish and scavenging seabirds are hands raised from the waves in their final plea for rescue, a gruesome manacled leg, and various shackles used to restrain the slaves when in transit. Further back on the left a vague white form could represent spirits, and on the right is the thrashing tail of a sea monster. Turner’s approach to sea creatures was romantic rather than scientific.
It’s also claimed that Turner interviewed this captain, and/or that the captain was the husband of Mrs Sophia Caroline Booth, who when widowed became Turner’s partner. It’s known that this incident was recorded in a poem, and that Turner exhibited his painting with his own verse apparently dating from 1812:
“Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon’s coming.
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying – ne’er heed their chains
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?”
The painting was purchased by the critic and painter John Ruskin, a fervent admirer of Turner’s work, who wrote of it:
“If I were reduced to rest Turner’s immortality upon any single work, I should choose this.”
It has also been claimed to have been an important part of the campaign against slavery, although the Slavery Abolition Act had become law in 1833, allowing only very limited exceptions, which were eliminated in 1843.
That’s a real modern history painting, although hardly a British School in itself.
Blayney Brown D, Concannon A and Smiles S eds (2014) The EY Exhibition: Late Turner – Painting Set Free, Tate Publishing. ISBN 978 1 84976 145 1.
Shanes E (1990) Turner’s Human Landscape, William Heinemann. ISBN 0 434 69502 5.