Joseph Mallord William Turner

Phryne Going to the Public Baths as Venus: Demosthenes Taunted by Aeschines

exhibited 1838

Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1930 × 1651 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

Here Turner moves from ancient Rome to Athens, at the same time apparently conflating two classical legends with characteristic freedom. Phryne, a famous courtesan, once celebrated the festival of Poseidon by going naked into the sea at Eleusis near Athens. Her near-contemporary Demosthenes once taunted Aeschynes, his rival as an orator, of being the son of a courtesan (but not of Phryne herself).

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

373. [N00522] Phryne going to the Public Baths as Venus—Demosthenes taunted by Æschines Exh. 1838


Canvas, 76 × 65 (180·5 × 165)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (67, ‘Phryne going to the Bath’ 6'4 1/2" × 5'5 1/2"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1929.

Exh. R.A. 1838 (31).

Lit. Ruskin 1857 (1903–12, xiii, pp. 107–9, 145, 151–8); Thornbury 1862, i, p. 331; 1877, p. 455; Hamerton 1879, pp. 275–6; Monkhouse 1882, p. 130; Bell 1901, pp. 133–4 no. 208; Armstrong 1902, pp. 206–7, 226; Davies 1946, p. 187; Finberg 1961, pp. 370, 501 no. 478; Herrmann 1963, p. 24; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, pp. 38, 60, pl. 105; Lindsay 1966, pp. 184, 187–8; Whittingham 1981, p. 5, repr.; Kitson 1983, pp. 9–10.

Phryne, who is shown on the right, was a celebrated Greek courtesan of the fourth century B.C. who spent most of her life in Athens. The two rival fourth-century Athenian orators, Demosthenes and Æschines, are on the left. Although there is no known historical connection between them and Phryne, Turner, who probably used Lemprière's Classical Dictionary, could have read there how Demosthenes accused Æschines of being the son of a courtesan, though not of Phryne (this accusation, for which there is no proof, occurs in the speech De Corona, of 330 B.C., § 129). Ruskin suggests that the picture therefore shows ‘the man who could have saved Greece [Demosthenes] taunted by the son of the harlot!’

The scene is probably also intended as a general picture of life in Athens at the time. However, the reference to Phryne going to the baths as Venus seems to allude to an event that took place at near-by Eleusis, when she celebrated the festival of Poseidon by going naked into the sea; this subject had been treated by Henry Tresham in a picture exhibited at the R.A. in 1789 (200).

The Athenaeum's general comments on Turner's 1838 exhibits, in the issue of 12 May, apply well to this picture. ‘Mr. Turner is in all his force this year, as usual—showering upon his canvas splendid masses of architecture, far distant backgrounds; and figures whereby the commandment is assuredly not broken— and presenting all these objects through such a medium of yellow, and scarlet, and orange, and azure-blue, as only lives in his own fancy and the toleration of his admirers, who have followed his genius till they have passed, unknowingly, the bounds between magnificence and tawdriness ... It is grievous to us to think of talent, so mighty and so poetical, running riot into such frenzies; the more grievous, as we fear, it is now past recall.’ In this picture ‘the wanton lady is postively lost among a crowd of flame-coloured followers—and these, again, show tame beneath such a golden tree as never grew save in the gardens of the Hesperides.’

Ruskin singled this picture out for special attention as a typical late figure composition, it being ‘of all the pictures dating after 1820 in the possession of the nation ... the least injured ... except in the sky’. After a long discussion of the reasons for the oddities of Turner's late figures he concludes, ‘I cannot, however, leave this Phryne without once more commending it to the reader's most careful study. Its feeling is exquisite; the invention of incident quite endless—from the inlaid marbles of the pavement to the outmost fold of fading hills, there is not a square inch of the picture without its group of fancies: its colour, though broken in general effect, is incomparably beautiful and brilliant in detail; and there is as much architectural design and landscape gardening in the middle distance as would be worth, to any student of Renaissance composition, at least twenty separate journeys to Genoa and Vicenza. For those who like towers better than temples, and wild hills better than walled terraces, the second distance, reaching to the horizon, will be found equally rich in its gifts.’

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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