Joseph Mallord William Turner

Aeneas and the Sibyl, Lake Avernus


In Tate Britain

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 765 × 984 mm
frame: 1045 × 1260 × 115 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

This work is probably Turner’s first attempt at an oil painting of a mythological subject, set in a ‘classical’ landscape. This is a stylised background, painted to evoke the landscape of ancient Greece or Rome. The story comes from the Aeneid, by the Roman poet Virgil. The Trojan military leader Aeneas wants to visit the Underworld in order to consult the ghost of his father. He meets the Cumaean Sibyl (a priestess at Cumae, a Greek colony near Naples, Italy). She agrees to guide him through the kingdom of the dead. The deep lake, surrounded by dark woods, was believed to lead to the Underworld. 
Turner based the Italian setting of this painting, with its view of Lake Avernus, on a drawing by his patron, Sir Richard Colt Hoare. 

Gallery label, July 2020

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Catalogue entry

34. [N00463] Æneas and the Sibyl, Lake Avernus c. 1798

Canvas, 30 1/8 × 38 3/4 (76·5 × 98·5)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (88, ‘Æneas and the Sibyl’ 4'0" × 3'0"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1929.

Exh. Tate Gallery 1931 (9); Birmingham (172) and Tate Gallery (165) 1948–9; R.A. 1974–5 (46).

Lit. Thornbury 1862, i, p. 263; 1877, p. 418; Armstrong 1902, p. 218; MacColl 1920, p. 3; Davies 1946, p. 187; Clare 1951, p. 27, pl. 26; Herrmann 1963, p. 10; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, pp. 14, 18, pl. 12; Lindsay 1966, p. 72; Kenneth Woodbridge, ‘The Sacred Garden Painters and the Lake-garden of Stourhead’, Apollo lXXXViii 1968, pp. 213–14, repr. pl. 12; Reynolds 1969, p. 40, pl. 26; Woodbridge 1970, pp. 89, 183–4; Gage 1974, pp. 72–5, pl. 12; Herrmann 1975, pp. 12, 226, pl. 20; Wilton 1979, pp. 53–4, 60, 135, pl. 41; Mattheson 1980, pp. 392–3.

Based on a drawing of Lake Avernus made by Sir Richard Colt Hoare on 4 February 1786 (repr. Woodbridge 1968, pl. 11, and 1970, pl. 29b, and Gage 1974, pl. 10). A drawing by Turner, presumably made during a visit to Stourhead in the later 1790s (see Woodbridge 1970, p. 178; repr. Gage 1974, pl. 11), is in the Turner Bequest (LI-N): this introduces a path and Antique masonry into the foreground and was fairly closely followed, save for the introduction of the figures, in the painting, which can be dated c. 1798.

For a later version painted for Colt Hoare in 1815, see No. 226. That this replaced the earlier version, with which Colt Hoare could have become dissatisfied, is a possibility, but there is no evidence that he ever owned any other version than that of 1815. John Gage has suggested (1974, pp. 38–40) that Colt Hoare could have suggested the subject in the 1790s partly to replace, as it were, a Wilson in his collection which had turned out to show not Lake Avernus but Lake Nemi with Diana and Callisto.

The subject, taken from the sixth book of Virgil's Æneid, is Æneas being told by the Cumaean Sibyl that he can only enter the Underworld, where he seeks the shade of his father, with a golden bough from a sacred tree as an offering to Proserpine. The subject of Apollo and the Sybil appears in Thomas Gray's list of imaginary paintings by artists of the past (see under No. 126, [N00490]). The subject is related to that of The Golden Bough, exhibited at the R.A. in 1834 (see No. 355, [N00371]), in which Lake Avernus and the distant landscape reappear.

In both versions of Æneas and the Sibyl Turner enlarged Colt Hoare's foreground to serve as a stage for the figures of the Cumaean Sibyl, Æneas and his followers, also adding the monumental fragments of Antique masonry. Lake Avernus and the ruined temple on its edge are more prominent, but he diminished the effect of the trees on the strip of land dividing that lake from the Lucrine Lake beyond. The sharp facets of the Miseneum in Colt Hoare's drawing are veiled by the effect of distance. In the earlier version, though not in the other, he balanced the framing trees on the right with others on the left.

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

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