Joseph Mallord William Turner

Dido and Aeneas

exhibited 1814

Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1460 × 2372 mm
frame: 1740 × 2650 × 100 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

This story comes from Virgil’s Latin poem The Aeneid. Aeneas was a Prince who fled Troy at the end of the Trojan War and was shipwrecked in Carthage, on the coast of North Africa. Here he fell in love with the Queen, Dido. Although he been told it was his destiny to become the founder of Rome, his love for Dido made him delay his final journey to Italy.
Here Turner shows the blossoming of their love, as they set out to go hunting in the woods. When Aeneas finally left Carthage the heartbroken Dido killed herself.

Gallery label, February 2004

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Catalogue entry

129. [N00494] Dido and Æneas Exh. 1814

Canvas, 57 1/2 × 93 3/8 (146 × 237)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (57, ‘The Morning of the Chase’ 7'11" × 4'10"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1910.

Exh. R.A. 1814 (177); Tate Gallery 1931 (59).

Engr. By W.R. Smith 1842 as ‘Dido and Æneas: the Morning of the Chase’.

Lit. Thornbury 1862, i, pp. 173, 296; 1877, pp. 123, 342, 432; Hamerton 1879, pp. 150–51, 197; Monkhouse 1879, p. 93; Bell 1901, p. 94 no. 130; Armstrong 1902, p. 221; Whitley 1928, p. 224; Davies 1946, p. 186; Clare 1951, p. 55; Finberg 1961, pp. 192, 210–12, 238, 276, 340, 386, 475 no. 186, pl. 16; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 32; Lindsay 1966, p. 160; Reynolds 1969, p. 186; Wilton 1979, p. 135; Gage 1980, pp. 64, 184; Kitson 1983, pp. 7, 10.

Exhibited in 1814 with the following lines:

‘When next the sun his rising light displays,
And gilds the world below with purple rays,
The Queen, Æneas, and the Tyrian Court,
Shall to the shady woods for sylvan games resort.’

4th Book of Dryden's Æneis.

The first idea for the composition, subsequently considerably altered, seems to have been the water-colour in the ‘Studies for Pictures: Isleworth’ sketchbook of c. 1804–5 (XC-21; repr. in colour Wilkinson 1974, p. 106, as of 1811). There is a further composition study, together with a number of figure studies, in the ‘Hesperides (1)’ sketchbook of about the same date (XCIII-5; and 4 verso and 5 verso-7 respectively). Finberg suggests that it is this picture, rather than Crossing the Brook (No. 130, q.v.), that Cyrus Redding identified as being based on scenery in Devonshire, but this seems unlikely save possibly in the most general sense.

The younger Trimmer, in an account reported by Thornbury, says of the ‘equi effrenati... without bridles’ that his father had told Turner that ‘the Libyan horses had no bridles, and Turner said he knew it, though I doubt if their views are borne out by modern critics.’

An uncredited press-cutting in the Victoria and Albert Museum, dated May 1814, explains the subject: ‘There is a fine historical landscape by Mr. Turner, representing the State of Carthage, its rising towers, and public games on the arrival of Æneas, who conducted by Dido issues from her palace to survey the busy scene. There is great facility and great knowledge of grouping evinced in the order and harmony with which a multitude of objects are here accumulated and distributed.’ Another uncredited press-cutting in the same collection describes the picture as ‘a charming landscape, [with] figures classically grouped’. Hazlitt in the Morning Chronicle for 3 May was rather more critical: ‘This picture, powerful and wonderful as it is, has all the characteristic splendour and confusion of an Eastern composition. It is not natural nor classical’. A review in the Champion for 7 May, attributed by Finberg to the same critic, elaborates the same theme, adding that the picture is ‘faulty in the too violent opposition of positive blues to vivid yellows, which destroys chasteness of colour, and is at variance with the truth of a representation of early day. We observe, also, an unsatisfactory execution of the parts near the foreground; in distinctness and correctness, a picture of such high pretensions ought not to be deficient. But it is a performance of which our nation has reason to be proud, for we believe no other could at present furnish its equal.’

John Gage suggests that this was the ‘Dido’ that Ambrose Johns wanted to borrow from Turner for an exhibition in Plymouth in 1815, though Dido Building Carthage has been the more favoured candidate (see Turner's letter of 4 November 1815, Gage op. cit., p. 64, and No. 131[N00498]).

The discoloured varnish that formerly made the quality of this picture impossible to assess was removed in 1984. The surface of the picture does seem, however, to have been considerably impaired when the painting was relined in the late nineteenth century.

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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