Joseph Mallord William Turner

Apollo and Python

exhibited 1811

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1454 x 2375 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Not on display

Display caption

When he first exhibited this painting Turner appended lines adapted from the Hymn to Apollo by the Greek poet, Callimacchus. That text recounted the sun god Apollo’s quest to build a temple for his oracle at Delphi, which first necessitated that he overcome the giant dragon, Python, which lived nearby.

Turner interprets Apollo’s slaughter of the creature as a conquest of good over evil. He shows it, in pictorial terms, as the triumph of light over darkness. However, he also includes a smaller snake emerging from the dragon’s wound, perhaps hinting at the inescapable cyclical regeneration of brutal natural forces.

Gallery label, February 2010

Catalogue entry

115. [N00488] Apollo and Python Exh. 1811

Canvas, 57 1/4×93 1/2 (145·5 × 237·5)
Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (58, ‘Apollo and Python’ 7'10 1/2" × 4'10"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1910

Exh. R.A. 1811 (81); Tate Gallery 1931 (46).

Lit. Ruskin 1857 and 1860 (1903–12, xiii, p. 122; vii, pp. 409–22); Thornbury 1862, i, p. 294; 1877, p. 430; Hamerton 1879, p. 122; Monkhouse 1879, pp. 67–74; Bell 1901, pp. 61, 89 no. 121; Armstrong 1902, p. 218; Davies 1946, p. 186; Finberg 1961, pp. 180, 473 no. 162; Gage 1969, pp. 55, 139–40, 193, pl. 44; Wilton 1980, pp. 72, 133; Marks 1981, p. 346; Paulson 1982, pp. 81, 92–3.

Exhibited in 1811 with the following lines:

‘Envenom'd by thy darts, the monster coil'd
Portentous horrible and vast his snake-like form:
Rent the huge portal of the rocky den,
And in the throes of death he tore,
His many wounds in one, while earth
Absorbing, blacken'd with his gore’.

Hymn of Callimachus.

The Python was a huge dragon living at Crissa near Delphi, which Apollo chose as a site for his oracle. The name ‘Python’ is said to have been derived from the Greek word ‘rot’ used by Apollo as he killed it. Turner seems to have used two eighteenth-century English translations of the Callimacchus Hymn to Apollo, those by Christopher Pitt in R. Anderson's Complete Edition of the Poets of Great Britain viii 1794, and by William Dodds, The Hymns of Callimacchus 1755; Turner's own drafts, partly based on these, occur in the ‘Hastings’ sketchbook of c. 1809–11 (CXI-17, 26 verso, 39 verso-40, 52 verso-53, 70 verso, 78, 82 verso and 83 verso). Cook and Wedderburn, in the Library Edition of Ruskin's Works vii, p. 409 n. 1., suggest that the verses in the R.A. catalogue were also based on the description of dragons in Ovid's Metamorphoses Book 1, the Python and the dragon killed by Cadmus. They also suggest that Turner originally intended to show the latter, with what appears to be Cadmus' javelin, later overpainted, being shown sticking into the dragon. In some of his draft verses, though not in those finally printed, Turner stresses the contrast between the dark setting of the Python's lair and Apollo's ‘golden arms’, a contrast recognised in the painting itself by John Ruskin in Modern Painters v (see below).

Turner seems to have had the picture in mind for some years; some of the sketches are closely juxtaposed with ones for The Garden of the Hesperides (No. 57 [N00477]) and, perhaps, Jason (No. 19 [N00471). A composition sketch appears in the ‘Rhine, Strassburg and Oxford’ sketchbook, used by Turner as early as 1802, but is perhaps itself rather later (LXXVII-43 verso; repr. Wilkinson 1974, p. 52). Another, inscribed ‘Death of Python’, very different from the final picture and therefore presumably Turner's first idea, is in the ‘Calais Pier’ sketchbook of c. 1800–05 (LXXXI-68 and 69). A third, also differing from the painting, is in the ‘Hesperides (1)’ sketchbook of c. 1805–7 (XCIII-28 verso). There are two studies for the figure of the Apollo in the 'Studies for Pictures: Isleworth sketchbook of c. 1804–5 (XC-3). The picture could have been exhibited in Turner's own gallery before appearing at the R.A. in 1811, no catalogues having survived for the years 1804 to 1808 (though the exhibits for 1808 are almost certainly given in full in John Landseer's (?) account in the Review of Publications of Art). Certainly the picture, though very dirty, looks as if it could have been painted considerably earlier than 1811. However, as Marks points out, Turner's first lectures as Professor of Perspective, delivered during the winter of 1810–11, show a return to classical principles. Moreover, when the picture was being restored in 1984, it was clear that its technique was very different from that of the Tate Gallery's works from the middle of the first decade of the century.

Press reports of the 1811 R.A. exhibitions concentrated on Mercury and Herse (No. 114), though the Monthly Magazine for July did say that Apollo and Python was ‘also ... such a brilliant example of practical composition, in landscape, as is not excelled in the English School’, echoing its praise for No. 114.

The picture was, however, singled out by Ruskin in 1857 as ‘one of the very noblest of all Turner's work’, and in Modern Painting v he devoted several pages to the picture, which he regarded as a sequel to The Garden of the Hesperides. He saw it as ‘the first experience of a great change which was passing in Turner's mind’ in which he became ‘the painter of the loveliness and light of the creation’, displaying ‘light seen pre-eminently in colour’.

Published in:
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984