Joseph Mallord William Turner


exhibited 1802

Oil paint on canvas
Support: 902 x 1197 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

Jason was a Greek hero, challenged to bring home from Colchis a golden fleece belonging to a marvellous ram. Here, Jason is seen stealing up on a dragon which he must outwit to gain the fleece.

The hero’s courage is emphasised by the way Turner suggests, rather than shows, the size and ferocity of the dragon. A single coil of its body emerges from the deep shadow, while the bones of previous human victims are scattered in front of its lair.

Gallery label, February 2004

Catalogue entry

19. [N00471] Jason Exh. 1802

Canvas, 35 1/2 × 47 1/8 (90 × 119·5)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (72, ‘Jason’ 4'0" × 3'0"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1910.

Exh. R.A. 1802 (519); B.I. 1808 (394, ‘Jason, from Ovid's Metamorphosis’); Plymouth 1815; Tate Gallery 1931 (11); Liverpool 1933 (22); Arts Council tour 1952 (2); R.A. 1974–5 (73).

Engr. By Charles Turner for the Liber Studiorum, R. 6 (the preliminary pen and sepia drawing, CXVI-E, repr. Finberg 1924, p. 22; the etching and engraving repr. pp. 22–3).

Lit. Ruskin 1857 (1903–12, xiii, pp. 104–5); Thornbury 1862, i, pp. 257, 263–4; 1877, p. 419; Monkhouse 1879, p. 74; Bell 1901, pp. 61, 79–80 no. 99; Armstrong 1902, p. 223; Finberg 1910, p. 38; MacColl 1920, pp. 4–5; Finberg 1924, p. 23; Davies 1946, p. 187; Finberg 1961, pp. 80, 141, 229, 465 no. 80, 468 no. 113, 513 no. 194a; Gage 1969, pp. 137–9; Gage 1980, p. 64; Wilton 1980, pp. 69, 133; Ziff 1980, p. 168.

Turner's source was probably Apollonius Rhodius (Argonautics iv, trans. Fawkes in R. Anderson's A Complete Edition of the Poets of Great Britain 1792–5, xiii, p. 302) rather than the short account in Ovid's Metamorphoses; Fawkes' translation gave the dragon as a ‘serpent’ as shown by Turner (and which tied up with the Python killed by Apollo, Turner's picture of which was already in his mind at this time—see No. 115 [N00488]). Turner omits the Golden Fleece in which lay the subject's alchemical significance, though in his choice of subject he may well have been influenced by de Loutherbourg, whose interest probably was alchemical; de Loutherbourg's Jason enchanting the Dragon was in the Bryan collection up to 1798 and his sale included Cadmus destroying the Dragon, Cadmus often being associated with Jason.

There is a possible sketch in the ‘Jason’ sketchbook of c. 1801 (LXI-60 verso) and another possible sketch, for the centre of the composition only, in the ‘Rhine, Strassburg and Oxford’ sketchbook of 1802 (LXXVII-44); the latter may however be for The Garden of the Hesperides like that on the next page, 45 (see No. 57[N00477]). There is also a drawing of Jason himself in the ‘Calais Pier’ sketchbook (LXXXI-7), and, as Jerrold Ziff has pointed out, a study of a fallen branch of a tree that Turner used for the left-hand part of the tree over which Jason clambers occurs in the ‘Swans’ sketchbook of c. 1798 (XLII-118, 119).

The picture does not seem to have been individually reviewed when it was exhibited in 1802 but in 1808, when it was shown again at the British Institution, it was given a long account in the Review of Publications of Art, probably by John Landseer, who began by describing it as ‘a scene of romantic and mysterious solitudes, of a highly poetical character’. The reviewer questioned the subtitle ‘from Ovid's Metamorphosis’ but went on, ‘It may be the more what Ovid would have done, had he expressed himself in another art, and painted, instead of writing, his story of Jason ... The spectator can discover but a single coil of the dragon-serpent, but having already seen him in his dreadful effects, is led to imagine much. It is ... a feature of immensity! while the few human bones which lay about the fore-ground terribly indicate the fearlessness of the hero, and the favourite prey of the monster.’ The reviewer concludes, of this and The Battle of Trafalgar (No. 58 [N00480]), ‘Both Mr. Turner's performances—Poems, we had nearly called them, are calculated to display the vast power which he possesses over the imaginations of his readers. In comparison with him, some other painters, and particularly of the modern French School, appear but as geometers of painting, making their appeal directly through the medium of sense to the judgement. His art is of more persuasively-commanding influence,

And without passing through the judgement, gains
The heart, and all its end at once attains.’

That this picture and No. 87 [N00496] were exhibited at Plymouth in 1815 is shown by Turner's letter to Ambrose Johns of 4 November 1815 explaining that he had sent these two rather than the ‘Dido’ and ‘Frostpiece’ (Nos. 131 [N00498] and 127 [N00492]) that Johns had suggested in a letter that had crossed with his (see Finberg 1961, p. 229, and Gage 1980, loc. cit.).

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