Joseph Mallord William Turner

The ‘Death of Achelous’


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Pen and ink on paper
Support: 143 × 228 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest XCIV 13

Catalogue entry

The river god Achelous, in the form of a bull, is wrestled to the ground by Hercules, as described in Book 9 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Turner’s treatment of subjects from Ovid is discussed at length by Nicholson.1 This drawing is one of five in the sketchbook (the others being folios 14–17, D05866–D05869) illustrating the Metamorphoses. Their uniformly fluid execution in pen and wash and inscription with their titles suggests that Turner made them in one session, working from or close to his translation of the text; with the Death of Nessus and Death of Lycus [Lichas] on folios 14 and 15 this subject forms a sequence of episodes in the life of Hercules that follows the narrative in the poem (Book 9, 1–280). Rather than his brave exploits, these show the hero made vulnerable by his love for Deianera.
As Wilton observes, Turner’s title for this drawing does not accurately describe the moment depicted. In Ovid’s text, Hercules’s combat with Achelous, his rival for Deianera’s hand, falls into several parts. First, Achelous fights with him in the form of a man and is overcome, but then transforms himself, first into a snake and then into a bull when he is again brought down by Hercules who tears off one of his horns, as shown here. The detached horn then becomes the Cornucopia and Achelous turns back into a river once more.
Wilton notes that the introduction of myth into landscapes of riverside trees is typical of Turner’s work along the Thames while staying at Isleworth; see especially the Studies for Pictures: Isleworth sketchbook (Tate D05491–D05617; D40568–D40574; D41505; Turner Bequest XC). In Nicholson’s view, Turner has transferred the ‘physicality and exuberance’ of the combat of Hercules and Achelous to his rendering of the landscape.
Turner sketched a rough copy of Domenichino’s picture of the same subject in Paris in 1802 in his Studies in the Louvre sketchbook (Tate D04374; Turner Bequest LXXII 77).
Nicholson 1990, pp.145–218.
Blank, save for some splashes of ink or wash

David Blayney Brown
December 2007

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