Joseph Mallord William Turner

Boccaccio Relating the Tale of the Bird-Cage

exhibited 1828

Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1219 x 899 mm
frame: 1500 x 1180 x 140 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

Turner exhibited this picture at the Royal Academy in 1828. Despite its title, it is not an illustration to The Decameron, a collection of tales by the Italian poet, Boccaccio. Instead, Turner uses the idea of Boccaccio telling one of his tales as a pretext for painting a group of leisured figures in the style of the eighteenth-century French painter, Antoine Watteau. Turner is also referring to the work of Thomas Stothard, who had illustrated the Decameron in 1825, and who was well known for his clever pastiches of Watteau.

Gallery label, September 2004

Catalogue entry

244. [N00507] Boccaccio relating the Tale of the Birdcage Exh. 1828


Canvas, 48 × 35 5/8 (122 × 90·5)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (73, ‘The Bird Cage’ 4'0" × 3'0"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1905.

Exh. R.A. 1828 (262); Venice and Rome 1948 (31, repr.); Hamburg, Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen 1949–50 (97); Whitechapel 1953 (81); R.A. 1974–5 (322).

Engr. By J.P. Quilley in mezzotint 1830.

Lit. Ruskin 1857 (1903–12, xiii, pp. 135–6); Leslie 1860, i,p. 130; Thornbury 1862, i, p. 306; ii, p. 35; 1877, pp. 222, 439; Hamerton 1879, pp. 134, 218; Bell 1901, p. 110 no. 159; Armstrong 1902, p. 219; MacColl 1920, p. 14; Whitley 1930, pp. 146–7; Davies 1946, p. 187; Finberg 1961, pp. 306–7, 487 no. 319; Herrmann 1963, p. 24; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 42; Lindsay 1966, p. 96; Gage 1969, p. 92; Reynolds 1969, p. 124, pl. 108; Reynolds 19692, p. 74, pl. 10; Herrmann 1975, p. 33, pl. 120; Wilton 1979, p. 208; Ziff 1980, p. 169.

Turner chose his title for general effect rather than to give a specific reference, there being no story about a birdcage in the Decameron, though Jerrold Ziff suggests that there may be a confused recollection of Samuel Rogers's Italy in which Boccaccio's name occurs on the same page as a reference to cages and the capture of thrushes. According to Ziff, the use of East Cowes Castle in the background may have resulted from an equally confused memory of a reference in J. Hassell's Tour of the Isle of Wight, 1790, to Shanklin (on the other side of the Island) as being noted for its singing birds, none of which were ever caged by the freedom-loving inhabitants. If these influences are correct they illustrate the amazingly unsystematic workings of Turner's mind.

Turner was inspired by Thomas Stothard's illustrations to an edition of the Decameron of 1825; the plate of ‘Giornata Seconda’ is particularly close with its Watteauesque figures sitting on the grass amidst trees (repr. A.C. Coxhead, Thomas Stothard R.A. 1906, facing p. 140). According to C.R. Leslie, Turner painted the picture ‘in avowed imitation’ of Stothard and told him, while actually working on it during one of the Varnishing Days prior to the opening of the 1828 R.A. Exhibition, that ‘If I thought he liked my pictures half as well as I like his, I should be satisfied. He is the Giotto [sic: probably a mishearing of ‘Watteau’] of England’. There is a further link with Watteau in that Turner here illustrates the text from Du Fresnoy that he was later to give to his Watteau Painting (No. 340), using white to bring a distant object near. In this case the distant object is based on East Cowes Castle, the subject of a number of sketches on blue paper done during Turner's stay there in 1827 (CCXXVII (a), e.g. no. 34, repr. Wilkinson 1975, p. 38).

The critic of the Literary Gazette for 17 May 1828 recognised Turner's reference to his fellow artists, ancient and modern; after mentioning Turner's other exhibits that year he goes on ‘—On land, as well as on water, Mr. Turner is determined not merely to shine, but to blaze and dazzle. Watteau and Stothard, be quiet! Here is much more than you could match.’ But he goes on to attack the picture as a ‘sketch ... With respect of the details in this gaudy experiment the less they are inspected the better for the reputation of the artist.’ The Athenaeum for 21 May attacked it as ‘the ne plus ultra of yellow, and gaudiness, and of corrupt art.’ The Times for 6 May, however, after describing another of Turner's exhibits as ‘extremely beautiful and powerful’, said of Boccaccio ‘that it displays equal genius and the same fault ... it is like nothing in nature.’

The paint was transferred to a new canvas after the Thames flood of 1928.

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