Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire ...

exhibited 1817

On display at Tate Britain

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1702 x 2388 mm
frame: 2150 x 2840 x 200mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

Claude Lorrain was Turner's favourite old master painter. This is one of his greatest essays in Claude's style. It is part of a pair of paintings showing the rise and fall of a great empire; here, Carthage's decline is symbolised by the setting sun.

Turner saw the rise and fall of once-great empires as a historical inevitability, confirmed by the fall of Napoleon, but threatening to overtake the victorious British. Today, the other half of the pair Dido building Carthage; or the Rise of the Carthaginian Empire hangs, at Turner's request, alongside a painting by Claude in the National Gallery.

Gallery label, September 2004

Catalogue entry

135. [N00499] The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire-Rome being determined on the Overthrow of her Hated Rival, demanded from her such Terms as might either force her into War, or ruin her by Compliance: the Enervated Carthaginians, in their Anxiety for Peace, consented to give up even their Arms and their Children Exh. 1817

Canvas, 67 × 94 (170 × 238·5)

Inscr. ‘AMILCAR K [?] ...’ on architrave of farther portico on left, ‘HANN [IBAL] ...’ at top of altar on right, and ‘AL CAMMAE SICHII [?]’ on lower part of same altar broken by angles of its octagonal plan.

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (2, ‘The decline of Carthage’ 7'11" × 5'7 1/2"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1929.

Exh. R.A. 1817 (195); Turner's gallery 1835; exchange loan to the Louvre, Paris, 1950–59; Berlioz, Victoria and Albert Museum 1969 (379, repr.); R.A. 1974–5 (165, repr. in colour p. 35).

Lit. Ruskin 1843, 1860, and 1857 (1903–12, iii, pp. 241, 267, 298; vii, p. 437–8 n.; xiii, pp. 124–5, 157); Thornbury 1862, i, pp. 180, 300; 1877, pp. 128, 343, 435; Hamerton 1879, pp. 164–5, 197; Monkhouse 1879, p. 93; Bell 1901, p. 99 no. 137; Armstrong 1902, p. 219; Whitley 1928, p. 272; Davies 1946, p. 185; Finberg 1961, pp. 247–8, 330–31, 477 no. 197; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 34; Ziff 1964, pp. 25–7, pl. 4; Lindsay 1966, pp. 153–4; Lindsay 19662, p. 49; Gage 1969, p. 90; Reynolds 1969, p. 94, colour pl. 70; Gage 1974, pp. 75–8; Kroeber 1978, pp. 152–6, pl. 50; Paulson 1978, p. 169, pl. 50; Topliss 1978, pp. 86–8, pl. 2; Wilton 1979, pp. 157, 211, pl. 167; Wilton 1980, pp. 71, 75–6; Paulson 1982, p. 64; Kitson 1983, p. 11, pl. 16.

Despite the slight difference in size this picture is the counterpart to Dido building Carthage; or the Rise of the Carthaginian Empire of two years earlier (No. 131 [N00498]). Turner's verses for the catalogue stress the significance of the setting sun:

‘* * * * * *At Hope's delusive smile,
The chieftain's safety and the mother's pride,
Were to th'insidious conqu'ror's grasp resign'd;
While o'er the western wave th'esanguin'd sun,
In gathering haze a stormy signal spread,
And set portentous.’

Ruskin, who recognised the two Carthage pictures as companions, quoted the text from the R.A. catalogue and added, ‘This piece of verse, Turner's own, though, it must be confessed, not particularly brilliant, is at least interesting in its proof that he meant the sky—which, as we have seen, is the most interesting part of the picture—for a stormy one’. He comments further on the verses in Modern Painters v: ‘And remember also, that the very sign in heaven itself which, truly understood is the type of love, was to Turner the type of death. The scarlet of the clouds was his symbol of destruction. In his mind it was the colour of blood. So he used it in the Fall of Carthage. Note his own written words...’

John Gage (1974) has pointed out that such comparisons of the rise and fall of empires, and their application to the contemporary situation, were a commonplace in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as in Oliver Goldsmith's Roman History and Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (both writers had been Professors of Ancient History at the Royal Academy). The then wellknown guide to Italy, J. C. Eustace's Classical Tour through Italy of 1813, even draws the parallel between Carthage and England. Claude's paintings had been interpreted in a similar way, the two pictures at Longford Castle having been engraved in 1772 as ‘the Landing of Æneas in Italy: The Allegorical Morning of the Roman Empire’ and ‘Roman edifices in Ruins: the Allegorical Evening of the Empire’. Turner's two large Claudian harbour scenes seem therefore to have been deliberate essays in this tradition. Ruskin saw the pictures as companions but Thornbury appears to have been the first to draw attention to their message.

Contemporary reviews did not note any connection between the two pictures though, with rare exceptions, they were high in praise of both. The Repository of Arts for June 1817 even praised Turner's verses: ‘The awful description of the setting sun, so exquisitely described by the poet in the three last lines of the extract above, has been chiefly attended to by Mr. Turner; and never has so bold an attempt been crowned with greater success... The colouring of every part of the picture is full of extreme richness... It is impossible to pass over the execution of the architectural parts of this picture: they are drawn with purity and correctness; the Grecian orders are carefully preserved, and the arrangement of the buildings in perspective is formed with so much adherence to geometrical rule, that the eye is carried through the immense range of magnificent edifices with such rapidity, that we entirely forget the artist, and merely dwell on the historic vision. Mr. Turner has here embodied the whole spirit of Virgil's poetical description of the event, its awful grandeur, and solemnity of effect.’ The Annals of the Fine Arts wrote, ‘Mr. Turner has only one, but that one is a lion ...excelling in the higher qualities of art, mind and poetical conception, even Claude himself.’

In an issue of the Annals earlier the same year the critic John Bailey had already said that ‘I wish the Directors of the British Institution would purchase it. When shall we see a National Gallery, where the works of the old masters and the select pictures of the British School, may be placed by the side of each other in fair competition, then would the higher branches of painting be properly encouraged?’ Could this have been the inspiration to Turner to bequeath two of his paintings to hang next to two Claudes in the National Gallery? In his first will, drawn up in 1829 five years after the National Gallery first opened at 100 Pall Mall, Turner left the two Carthage pictures to be ‘placed by the side of Claude's “Sea Port” and “Mill”’; later, in 1831, The Decline of Carthage was replaced by the earlier painting Sun rising through Vapour (R.A. 1807; see No. 69 [N00479]).

There are composition sketches in the ‘Yorkshire I’ sketchbook (CXLIV-101 verso (repr. Reynolds 1969, pl. 68) and 102 verso) and perhaps also in the ‘Hastings to Margate’ sketchbook (CXL-73 verso), and studies for the architectural setting in the ‘Hints River’ sketchbook (CXLI-32 verso and 33).

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