Joseph Mallord William Turner

Ulysses and Polyphemus


Not on display
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Support: 117 x 182 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest XCVIII 5

Catalogue entry

This is one of two complementary subjects from Homer’s Odyssey in this sketchbook, the other being Ulysses’s encounter with Nausicaa while shipwrecked on her island; see folio 3 (D06183). The two episodes reveal contrasting extremes of Ulysses’s character; humble and dependent while with Nausicaa, bold and defiant when confronting the giant Polyphemus, who reclines in his cloudy mountain cave as Ulysses’s ship sails past. Wilton suggests a further link with Turner’s ideas for a picture of Chryses, a subject from Homer’s Iliad, also set out in the sketchbook (see chiefly folios 3 verso and 4; D06184, D06185). Turner’s Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus – Homer’s Odyssey (National Gallery, London),1 exhibited in 1829, gives appropriate numinous manifestations to the elements of mountains, sea and sun while the Chryses studies make light, as a personification of the sun-god Apollo, a protagonist in the story.2
Butlin and Joll appear to discount the present drawing as a study for the 1829 picture on the grounds that there is ‘no connection in composition’.3 However, as Hill points out, it is in fact close in many respects, notably in the relative positioning of the giant (though in the picture the pose is changed to the left) and of Ulysses’s ship and the division of the composition into areas of darkness and light. It is certainly evidence of the long gestation of the picture in Turner’s mind. As Hill further observes, the paper is splashed with oil, suggesting that Turner may have had the drawing beside his easel as he worked on the picture or his oil sketch for it (Tate N02958).4

David Blayney Brown
July 2008

Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.183–5 no.330 (pl.331).
Wilton and Mallord Turner 1990, p.125.
Butlin and Joll 1984, p.184.
Ibid., p.177 no.302 (pl.305).

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