Joseph Mallord William Turner

Story of Apollo and Daphne

exhibited 1837

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on wood
Support: 1099 x 1988 mm
frame: 1505 x 2375 x 200
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Not on display

Display caption

Turner followed his usual process of painting the sky with unmodified oil paint. Over this lies a transparent glaze, rich in oil, which has become greenish-yellow and more obvious now. Turner strengthened the mountain tops, some clouds, and a building, by adding similar paint after the original had cracked as it dried. This paint retains texture and body, and may have included resin or megilp, which would account for the early crack formation.

The landscape and receding hills were probably painted with the wax-oil formulation he used in other paintings to give a smooth translucent paint, enlivened with dabs of megilp-rich impasto for details. In the shadows of the landscape Turner probably used a paint rich in lead-based driers, which would have formed the wide cracks very quickly, even as it dried.

Gallery label, February 2010

Catalogue entry

369. [N00520] Story of Apollo and Daphne Exh. 1837


Mahogany, 43 1/4 × 78 1/4 (110 × 199)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (27, ‘Apollo and Daphne’ 6'5 1/2" × 3'7"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1929.

Exh. R.A. 1837 (130).

Lit. Ruskin 1843, 1856, 1860 and 1857 (1903–12, iii, pp. 337–8, 453–4; v, p. 391; vi, p. 353; vii, p. 484; xiii, pp. 148–50); Thornbury 1862, i, pp. 329–30; 1877, p. 454; Bell 1901, p. 132 no. 204; Armstrong 1902, p. 218; Davies 1946, p. 186; Finberg 1961, pp. 367, 500 no. 473; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 56; Lindsay 1966, p. 183; Reynolds 1969, p. 169; Gage 1972, pp. 20–21, pls. 9a and b (detail); Raymond Lister (ed.), The Letters of Samuel Palmer 1974, i, p. 182; Herrmann 1975, p. 44; Wilton 1979, p. 195; Paulson 1982, p. 92.

Exhibited at the R.A. with the following caption, which uses Dryden's translation:

Ovid's Metamorphoses.

‘Sure is my bow, unerring is my dart;
But, ah! more deadly his who pierced my heart.

*       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

As when th'impatient greyhound, slipt from far,
Bounds o'er the glebe to course the fearful hare,
She, in her speed, does all her safety lay;
And he, with double speed, pursues the prey.’

Ruskin, in his notes on the Turner gallery at Marlborough House, explains the subject: 'It is necessary, however, that the reader should in this case, as in that of the “Bay of Baiae” [No. 230 [N00505]], understand Turner's meaning in the figures, and their relation to the landscape. Daphne was the daughter of the river Peneus, the most fertilizing of the Greek rivers, by the goddess Terra (the earth). She represents, therefore, the spirit of all foliage, as springing from the earth, watered by rivers; rather than the laurel merely. Apollo became enamoured of her, on the shore of the Peneus itself—that is to say, either in the great vale of Larissa, or in that of Tempe. The scene is here meant for Tempe, because it opens to the sea: it is not in the least like Tempe, which is a narrow ravine: but it expressed the accepted idea of the valley as far as Turner could interpret it, it having long been a type to us moderns of all lovely glens or vales descending from the mountains to the sea. The immediate cause of Apollo's servitude to Daphne was his having insulted Cupid, and mocked at his arrows. Cupid answered, simply, “Thy bow strikes all things, Apollo, but mine shall strike Thee.”

'The boy god is seen in the pictures behind Apollo and Daphne. Afterwards, when Daphne flies and Apollo pursues, Ovid compares them to a dog of Gaul, coursing a hare—the greyhound and hare Turner has, therefore, put into the foreground. When Daphne is nearly exhausted, she appeals to her father, the river Peneus—“gazing at his waves”—and he transforms her into a laurel on his shore. That is to say, the life of the foliage—the child of the river and the earth—appeals again to the river, when the sun would burn it up; and the river protects it with its flow and spray, keeping it green for ever.

‘So then the whole picture is to be illustrative of the union of the rivers and the earth; and of the perpetual help and delight granted by the streams, in their dew, to the earth's foliage.’

Unlike Ruskin, Blackwood's Magazine for July–December 1837 thought that Turner had ‘odd notions of a simile. He makes it precede, and thrusts it into the very foreground before his figures, and there we have such a hare and hound! and to show the hound has the poet's “double-speed”, the poor white-livered dog Apollo stands stock-still in friddled feebleness, and the red-nosed Daphne waiting lamentably to be caught. But the ground, or whatever we may please to call it, of the piece, is neither earth nor water, nor anything that grows, or ever grew on it, or in it.’ The rest of the press was rather more complimentary. For the Spectator, 6 May, the landscape was ‘a wonder of art; a splendid picture of nature, and with a less share than usual of his [Turner's] glaring defects’. The Athenaeum of the same date wrote that ‘Mr. Turner's grand landscape of Apollo and Daphne ..., though sufficiently exuberant in its invention, and rich in its colouring, and exceptionable in the careless deficiency of its figures, is more moderate than the last-mentioned extravaganza [Hero and Leander, No. 370 [N00521]], and we therefore prefer it, at the risk of being called lukewarm and one-sided.’ For the Literary Gazette, again of the same date, the picture was ‘One of those gorgeous effects of prismatic colours in all their original and distinct vividness, which under any other management than that of Mr. Turner, would be offensive; but which he renders absolutely magical.’

Samuel Palmer, writing to John Linnell from Italy on 22 August 1838, said that ‘Turner's corruscation of tints and blooms in the middle distance of his Apollo and Daphne is nearly, tho' not quite so much a mystery as ever: and I am inclined to think that it is like what Paganini's violin playing is said to have been; something to which no one ever did or will do the like; though Claude and Titian have done just as well or better in another way.’ For another example of a parallel being drawn between Turner and Paganini see No. 342 [N00516].

Finberg suggests that this picture may have been in hand for some years but there are no particular stylistic or technical reasons to support this. The picture was however completed in its frame, presumably when sent into the Royal Academy in 1837. There is some bituminous and drying crackle.

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