Joseph Mallord William Turner

Bacchus and Ariadne

exhibited 1840

Oil paint on canvas
Support: 787 x 787 mm
frame: 1135 x 1120 x 105 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

Ariadne, daughter of Minos, King of Crete, has been abandoned by Theseus. She is found by Bacchus and taken as his bride. Turner's picture is based on Titian's of the same subject, which had entered the National Gallery in 1826 and was praised by Charles Lamb in an essay published in 1833. For the first time, Turner experimented here with a square canvas, and apparently painted in the final glazes when the picture was already in a round frame.

Gallery label, August 2004

Catalogue entry

382. [N00525] Bacchus and Ariadne Exh. 1840


Canvas, 31 × 31 (79 × 79)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (91, ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ 2'7" × 2'6 1/2"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1929.

Exh. R.A. 1840 (27).

Lit. Ruskin 1857 (1903–12, xiii, pp. 157–8); Thornbury 1862, i, p. 346; 1877, p. 465; Hamerton 1879, p. 285; Bell 1901, p. 138 no. 218; Armstrong 1902, p. 218; Davies 1946, p. 187; Finberg 1961, pp. 379, 505 no. 530; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 70; Lindsay 1966, pp. 185, 204; Reynolds 1969, p. 179; Charles F. Stuckey, ‘Temporal Imagery in the Early Romantic Landscape’, University of Pennsylvania dissertation 1972, p. 182; Wallace 1979, pp. 110–11, pl. 6.

Ariadne, daughter of Minos, King of Crete, was deserted by Theseus on the island of Naxos; the painting shows her discovery by Bacchus, who made her his bride. The figures are closely based on Titian's picture of the same subject, which had entered the National Gallery in 1826. Stuckey has pointed out that this painting may be in part a response to Charles Lamb's praise of Titian's painting in his essay ‘On the Total Effect of the Quality of Imagination, Observable in the Works of Modern British Artists’, published in The Athenaeum in 1833 (E.V. Lucas, ed., The Works of Charles and Mary Lamb, 1903, ii, pp. 226–34).

Turner's debt to Titian was recognised by the critic of Blackwood's Magazine, September 1840, in one of his usual abusive reviews: ‘to this we turn with instant pain and from it with great disgust ... Here we have such an Ariadne and such a Bacchus as for ever, if the picture be remembered, must cast ridicule upon the subject, and is therefore injurious to the well-known Titian in the National Gallery, from which Turner (as one would think, malevolently) has burlesqued the figures. Ariadne is the oddest creature! Mr. Turner has contrived to scratch in, we cannot say paint, at once a profile and a full face, but without shadow; so that Ariadne is something between an owl and the fish called old maid—old maid, however, with a numerous family, poor Bacchus and white doll Fauns. This has neither composition, nor execution, nor any beauty of any kind that we can see, and is altogether a melancholy absurdity. We find one rather startling novelty, that the sybil's temple was a ruin in the days of Bacchus.’ Other reviews were little kinder. To The Times, 6 May, ‘This picture represents nothing that ever existed in nature and scarcely anything that the most distorted imagination ever conceived without it. The colours are as vivid as the patchwork of a painter's palette, and apparently laid on the canvas by dabbing that implement at haphazard repeatedly against it.’ For the Athenaeum, 16 May, the picture, ‘though little better than a palette, set with the appetizing yellow and brown of an omelette, is tame in its lines, exquisite in its drawing, and prosaic as to composition, when compared with other works’ by Turner in the exhibition. The Spectator of the same date spoke of ‘The gorgeous explosion of light—literally a sun-burst—that Turner calls Bacchus and Ariadne’ and counted it among his ‘freaks of chromomania’.

Even Ruskin described this picture ‘as the first exhibited in the Academy which was indicative of definite failure in power of hand and eye; the trees being altogether ill painted, and especially uncertain in form of stem.’

This picture is the first of a number in which Turner experimented with a square canvas, sometimes intended to be framed as a circle or with the corners cut across (see Nos. 394–5, 399–400 [N00528-N00529], 404–5 [N00531-N00532] and 424–5 [N00549-N00550]). In this case, although the paint continues into the corners, Turner seems to have painted the final glazes when the picture was already in a circular frame. In the paint covered by the frame Turner incised some letters, ‘B’ in the right-hand corner and ‘OM’ (or ‘H’) in the upper left-hand corner. For a possible pendant see No. 394.

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