Joseph Mallord William Turner

Mercury Sent to Admonish Aeneas

exhibited 1850

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In Tate Britain

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 902 × 1206 mm
frame: 1297 × 1605 × 196 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

This is the first of four pictures by Turner telling the story of Aeneas by the Roman poet Virgil. They were the last works Turner exhibited at the Royal Academy. Only three survive. They are his final paintings in the ‘classic’ style of 17th-century French painter Claude Lorrain.
It is difficult to identify the figures. Trojan hero Aeneas stands on the left in his ‘Tyrian’ purple cloak. With him stands Cupid, the Roman god of love. The god Mercury, with his wand and winged feet may not be present, although part of the title. Perhaps he has already flown away, after delivering a message to Aeneas, as Virgil's story describes.

Gallery label, July 2020

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Catalogue entry

429. [N00553] Mercury sent to admonish Æneas Exh. 1850


Canvas, 35 1/2 × 47 1/2 (90·5 × 121)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (30, ‘Mercury sent to admonish Æneas’ 4'0" × 3'0"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1905.

Exh. R.A. 1850 (174); New York 1966 (39, repr. in colour p. 49); Edinburgh 1968 (23); From El Greco to Pollock: Early and Late Works by European and American Artists Baltimore Museum of Art, October–December 1968 (88, repr.); R.A. 1974–5 (528).

Lit. Archer 1862, p. 166 (1981, p. 36); Thornbury 1862, i, p. 349; 1877, p. 467; Hamerton 1879, pp. 297–8; Bell 1901, pp. 158–9 no. 265; Armstrong 1902, p. 255; MacColl 1920, p. 26; Davies 1946, p. 186; Finberg 1961, pp. 427, 511 no. 586; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 73; Ziff 1964, pp. 24–7, pl. 1; Gowing 1966, pp. 38, 53, repr. in colour p. 49; Gage 1969, pp. 98, 187, 244 n. 105; Reynolds 1969, pp. 204–5; Wilton 1979, p. 233; Gage 1980, p. 223.

Exhibited with the verses:

‘Beneath the morning mist,
Mercury waited to tell him of his neglected fleet.’

MS Fallacies of Hope.

It is difficult to identify Mercury with his wand and winged feet among the figures in this picture. The standing figure on the left seems to be Æneas in his cloak of Tyrian purple, working on the foundations of the citadel; with him stands Cupid, whom Venus had substituted for Æneas' son Ascanius. Perhaps Mercury has already melted into thin air, as Virgil describes him doing after he delivers his message. Æneas' fleet is suggested on the right.

This is the first of four pictures on the theme of Æneas' stay at Carthage, tempted by love for Dido to resist the destiny that summoned him to Italy; for the others see Nos. 430–432 [N00552,N00555, N00554]. Several critics looked back regretfully at Turner's earlier style. For The Times, 4 May 1850, ‘it would seem as if Mr. Turner had possessed in youth all the dignity of age to exchange it in age for the effervescence of youth. But to the more practical eyes which still trace through these eccentricities the hand of a great master and a matchless command over the materials of painting, careless of form and prodigal of light, these four pictures are not deficient in beauty and interest’. This picture and The Departure of the Fleet, No. 432 [N00554], were distinguished for having ‘the coolness of dawn, or twilight thrown, as it were, through the radiance of a southern sun, which gives the glow and the iridescence of the opal’. The Athenaeum for 18 May tried to steer a middle way between the extremes of enthusiasm and disparagement: ‘Mr. Turner's works, amid their eccentricity of manner, exhibit the creative quality of Art, the suggestive powers of the artist, in as high a degree as the works of any painter who ever wielded pencil’. These four pictures ‘are, each, full of combinations of forms of richest fancy and of colours of most dazzling hue’. They must be looked at from a distance for ‘the general effect’ and ‘as great pictorial schemes abounding in rich stores of Nature and deductions from Art’. Mercury sent to admonish Æneas was described as ‘exquisite for delicacy and refinement’. The Illustrated London News of 1 June was more uncompromisingly critical, talking of ‘an excess of deviation from all everyday and anyday examination of nature’. Taking up the Athenaeum's point about looking at the pictures from a distance, the critic went on, ‘How far is this distance to be carried? till they are almost out of sight?’ The critic of the Spectator, 4 May, only seems to have noticed three of the pictures: ‘a splendid perplexity, respecting which the name would convey no information to the reader; with a companion, equally brilliant to the eye and dark to the understanding’, and ‘another picture from his “Fallacies of Hope”,—the said fallacy being any hope of understanding what the picture means’.

Turner may have been consoled by a letter from his old friend George Jones, of 14 April, sent from the Royal Academy, in which Jones writes, ‘I saw your picture this morning for the first time, and more glorious effusions of mind have never appeared—your intellect defies time to injure it, and I really believe that you never conceived more beautiful, more graceful, or more enchanting compositions, than these you have sent for exhibition’.

According to the engraver and watercolourist J. W. Archer, who visted Mrs Booth at Cheyne Walk shortly after Turner's death, Turner had painted there ‘the last three pictures which he exhibited at the Royal Academy’ (the reference to three paintings only may be a mistake; alternatively, one of the last four Carthage pictures may have been painted elsewhere). ‘These pictures were set in a row and he went from one to the other, first painting upon one, touching on the next, and so on, in rotation’.

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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