On your right as you entered the gallery, you would have seen several large paintings hung on the walls, with a few smaller ones propped up on the floor. These paintings referred to a wide variety of subjects, from mythological stories to visions of majestic cities, celebrations of technological advancements and laments for the passing of a golden age.
The first of five grand paintings of tragic subjects hung opposite the fireplace in Turner’s gallery, this painting tells the story of Apollo and the Sibyl from Roman poet Ovid’s book Metamorphoses. After being granted a wish by the mythological god Apollo, the Sibyl asks for a long life, but forgetting to request everlasting youth as well, she is doomed to slowly wither away over the course of a thousand years. For Turner, this tragedy was a symbol for the fate of ancient Italy and Rome itself, which he tried to capture in the first landscape he painted after his first visit to Rome.
Claude Lorrain was Turner's favourite old master painter. This is one of his greatest essays in Claude's style. It is part of a pair of paintings showing the rise and fall of a great empire; here, Carthage's decline is symbolised by the setting sun.
Turner saw the rise and fall of once-great empires as a historical inevitability, confirmed by the fall of Napoleon, but threatening to overtake the victorious British. Today, the other half of the pair Dido building Carthage; or the Rise of the Carthaginian Empire hangs, at Turner's request, alongside a painting by Claude in the National Gallery.
This hazy, shimmering painting was intended to be a detailed and recognisable image of a city Turner had visited on a tour of Italy. Can you tell which one it is? With its big stretches of water and domed roofs, this is meant to be an image of the city of Venice, in Italy. The famous church of Santa Maria della Salute stands in the centre, enveloped by canals and other Venetian landmarks.
When the painting was first displayed, one attendee said that it was “too evanescent for anything but a fairy city.” If you didn’t know the title, would you know this was meant to be Venice—or even a city, for that matter? Does the atmosphere created with Turner’s abstracted, impressionistic technique convey the feel of the place as well as if he had painted in a more realistic style?