Joseph Mallord William Turner

Apullia in Search of Appullus

exhibited 1814

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Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1485 × 2410 mm
frame: 1917 × 2850 × 170 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

Turner took the subject of this painting from a series of mythological tales called Metamorphoses by the Latin poet Ovid. A shepherd named Appullus has been turned into an olive tree as a punishment for mocking some dancing nymphs. Turner has invented a mythical wife for him, named Apulia. While looking for her vanished husband, she is shown the olive tree on which his name is carved.

The composition is taken almost literally from a Landscape with Jacob and Laban by the seventeenth-century artist Claude Lorrain. This was in the collection of Lord Egremont at Petworth, which Turner knew well.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

128. [N00495] Apullia in Search of Appullus vide Ovid Exh. 1814

Canvas, 57 1/2 × 93 7/8 (146 × 238·5)
Inscr. ‘Appulia in Search of Appulus learns from the Swain the cause of his Metamorphosis’ b.l. and ‘Appulus’ on tree b.l.
Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (4, ‘Apuleia in search of Apuleius’ 7'9 1/2" × 4'9 1/2"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1910.

Exh. B.I. 1814 (168); ?Turner's gallery 1835; Tate Gallery 1931 (58); R.A. 1974–5 (162).

Engr. By William Say for the Liber Studiorum, R. 72, but never published (repr. Finberg 1924, p. 289; the preliminary etching repr. p. 288).

Lit. Thornbury 1862, i, pp. 296–7; 1877, p. 432; Hamerton 1879, pp. 150–51; Monkhouse 1879, pp. 69, 76, 93; Bell 1901, pp. 94–5 no. 131; Armstrong 1902, pp. 59, 218; MacColl 1920, p. 11; Finberg 1924, p. 289, repr. p. 288; Davies 1946, p. 185; Clare 1951, p. 55; Finberg 1961, pp. 206–9, 217, 475 no. 185; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 32, pl. 54; Lindsay 1966, pp. 150–51, 156; Gage 1969, p. 103, pl. 54; Reynolds 1969, pp. 94–5, pl. 71; Woodbridge 1970, p. 246; Herrmann 1975, pp. 23, 230, pl. 72; Wilton 1979, p. 132; Gage 1980, p. 56; Kathleen Nicholson, ‘Turner's “Appulia in Search of Appulus” and the Dialectics of Landscape Tradition’, Burlington Magazine, cxx 1980, pp. 679–84, pl. 30; Chubb 19812, p. 30, detail repr. pl. 8; Kitson 1983, p. 10, pl. 8.

The reference in the title ‘vide Ovid’ refers to Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book xiv which contains the story of the transformation of the Apulian shepherd. In Garth's translation, this became the transformation of ‘Appulus’, and Turner seems to have invented a mythical wife ‘Apullia’, to whom the swain points out the name ‘Appulus’ carved on the tree; as William Chubb has pointed out, the most prominent nymph is based on an engraving of ‘Apulia’, the district in Italy, in the 1709 London edition of Cesare Ripa's Iconologia (repr. loc. cit., pl. 9).

The painting was submitted for one of the British Institution's annual premiums. Two or three premiums were usually awarded for pictures ‘in Historical or Poetical Composition’ and one for ‘the best Landscape’. However, Kathleen Nicholson (in a paper delivered at the Turner Symposium held at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, on 18 April 1975) has shown that the picture was delivered too late to qualify for the premium and that the whole affair was probably designed as a challenge to the British Institution and its main supporters, Sir George Beaumont and Payne Knight. The closing date was 4 January and Turner did not deliver his picture until 15 January, when he failed even to make any apology for his lateness. His submission was also unusual in that the competition was designed for young, unestablished artists; no full Royal Academician competed after 1810.

An anonymous letter in the Examiner for 13 February 1814 attacked Turner's submission as unfair to young artists and because it was late, and protested that the picture ‘is not an original composition, being really a direct copy of Lord Egremont's Claude’, and indeed it is very close to Claude's Jacob with Laban and his Daughters (see plate 567). Thornbury even suggests that it was painted as a pendant for Lord Egremont (1862, i, p. 296). Turner varied the architectural forms and some of the figures, but all the main elements of the compositions are the same. Finberg (1961, pp. (208–9) justifies the similarity by the British Institution's requirement that the winning landscape should be ‘proper in Point of Subject and Manner to be a Companion’ to a work by Claude or Poussin, but this seems in fact only to have been true for the first year of the premiums, 1807. However, the requirement may well have prompted Turner's treatment.

Significantly, perhaps, Lord Egremont, who was to have been on the British Institution's jury, failed to appear on the day. It is even possible, as Kathleen Nicholson has suggested, that the central nymph who looks out directly at the spectator in what seems to be a mocking way is a deliberate gesture of defiance to the British Institution, another of whose patrons, the Marquess of Stafford, owned Claude's treatment of the same subject. Kathleen Nicholson has pointed out that the choice of the subject is also in itself an attack on the British Institution. The Apulian shepherd was transformed into a wild olive tree with bitter berries as a punishment for mimicking a group of nymphs. Turner, in his imitation of a landscape by Claude, was attacking the British Institution's encouragement of imitation of Old Masters. In his subtle improvements on his model he also rebutted Sir George Beaumont's attacks on him for debasing Claude's style. The same year, at the Royal Academy, Turner exhibited his own personal reinterpretation of Claude, Dido and Æneas (No. 129 [N00494]). It therefore seems likely that Turner's painting, sent in deliberately late, was intended to tease the officers of the British Institution.

William Hazlitt, writing in the Morning Chronicle for 5 February 1814, found Turner's dependence on Claude an advantage. ‘All the taste and all the imagination being borrowed, his powers of eye, hand and memory, are equal to anything.’ He attacked the figures as even worse than Claude's and found ‘the utter want of a capacity to draw a distinct outline with the force, the depth, the fulness, and precision of this artist's eye for colour ... truly astonishing.’ A review in Robert Hunt's The Examiner for 6 February 1814 calls the picture ‘an exquisite copy of Claude Lorraine’ but by 17 April the same paper was attacking Turner's effrontery in putting in for the British Institution's prize.

That this picture was on view in Turner's gallery in 1835 is suggested by the account in the Spectator for 26 April 1835: ‘At the other end of the gallery, is another green landscape: a classical composition, with a long stately bridge crossing a river, Claude-like in arrangement and tone, having equal space and repose, with greater solidity of substance ... We wish Turner would return to the sober beauty and elaborate truth of his earlier works, and cease “to gild refined gold and paint the lily”.’

There are composition sketches in the ‘Woodcock Shooting’ and ‘Chemistry and Apuleia’ sketchbooks and a drawing for the group of figures in the latter (CXXIX-41 and CXXXV-66 verso to 68 verso; and CXXXV-65 verso and 66 respectively).

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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