Joseph Mallord William Turner

Phaeton’s Sisters


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Pen and ink on paper
Support: 150 x 258 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest XC 54 a

Catalogue entry

See note to the recto (D05575) for the group of studies in this sketchbook representing subjects from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Turner’s inscription associates this slight sketch of three female figures beside a sarcophagus with Book 2, telling the story of Phaeton’s fatal attempt to drive the chariot of the Sun. His charred body was placed in a tomb beside the River Eridanus (today’s Po), where his sisters mourned him until they were transformed into poplars and their tears into amber by the sun. ‘Phaeton’s Sisters’ is also listed among potential subjects on folio 55 verso (D05578). As observed by Nicholson, the sisters’ lamentations by the tomb had been less commonly treated by artists than either the beginning of the story, Phaeton’s request to Apollo to drive his chariot, or its end with their transformation into trees.1 The iconography of the sisters has been collected by Marcel Roethlisberger.2
Hill mistakes the sarcophagus, which Turner must have imagined as carved with Phaeton’s portrait (‘his Face’), for ‘what appears to be a large Aeolian harp mounted on a pedestal’.
The leaf is splashed with red and blue oil paint.

David Blayney Brown
August 2007

Nicholson 1990, p.149.
Marcel Roethlisberger, Claude Lorrain: The Paintings, New Haven 1961, vol.1, p.340.

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