Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Goddess of Discord Choosing the Apple of Contention in the Garden of the Hesperides

exhibited 1806

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In Tate Britain

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1553 × 2184 mm
frame: 1895 × 2510 × 142 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

In ancient Greek mythology, the Garden of the Hesperides was situated on the slopes of Mount Atlas, where a tree of golden apples grew. The daughters of Hesperus, the evening star, took care of the tree. It was watched over by a dragon that never slept. Turner shows the garden as a peaceful landscape in a protected valley. The goddess of Discord, in disguise, takes one of the apples. This small act began the events that led to the Trojan War. 

Gallery label, July 2020

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Catalogue entry

57. [N00477] The Goddess of Discord choosing the Apple of Contention in the Garden of the Hesperides Exh. 1806

Canvas, irregular 61 1/8 × 86 (155 × 218·5)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (66, ‘The Garden of the Hesperides’ 7'2" × 5'1"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1910.

Exh. B.I. 1806 (South Room 55); Turner's gallery 1808; Tate Gallery 1931 (24).

Lit. Farington Diary 16 February and 5 April 1806; Ruskin 1857 and 1860 (1903–12, xiii, pp. 113–19; vii, pp. 376, 392–408); Thornbury 1862, i, pp. 267–8; 1877, pp. 424–5; Hamerton 1879, pp. 98–9, 153–4; Monkhouse 1879, pp. 52, 72–4; Bell 1901, pp. 61, 83–4 no. 108; Armstrong 1902, pp. 59, 223; MacColl 1920, p. 6; Davies 1946, p. 187; Rothenstein 1949, p. 10, colour pl. 5; Clare 1951, pp. 35–6, repr.; Finberg 1961, pp. 122–3, 134, 148–9, 171, 467 no. 96, 469 no. 126; Ziff 1963, p. 321 n.37; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, pp. 11, 19, pl. 27; Lindsay 1966, p. 98; Lindsay 19662, p. 103, 131–2; Gage 1969, pp. 137–9, pl. 60; Herrmann 1975, pp. 15, 228, pl. 44; Russell and Wilton 1976, pp. 18, 25; Topliss 1978, pp. 86–90, pl. 1; Wilton 1979, p. 94, pl. 97; Wilton 1980, p. 133; Finley 19812, p. 247 n.26, pl. 43a.

There are a number of sketches with some relation to the picture in the ‘Hesperides’ (1) sketchbook, though none for the whole composition (XCIII-1, 3 (the same background, but the figures seem to be for another subject), 3 verso (the dragon, again with different figures), 8–10).

The prominent mountainous spur in the background also appears, with slight modifications, in Fall of the Rhine at Schaffhausen, shown at the R.A. later the same year (No. 61), and in The Vision of Jacob's Ladder, perhaps begun at about this time but completely reworked later (No. 435 [N05507]). It also appears in the large unfinished watercolour of, perhaps, The Great St. Bernard Pass (LXXX-D; repr. in colour Russell and Wilton op. cit., pp. 46–7). Turner seems to have detached the motif from its particular locality and, as has been pointed out by Lawrence Gowing in an unpublished lecture, transformed the detail of a clump of trees on the spur into the guardian Dragon.

No verses were included in the catalogue of this the first exhibition of the British Institution, but there is a related ‘Ode to Discord’ in the Verse Notebook belonging to C.W.M. Turner:

'Discord, dire Sister of Etherial Jove
Coeval, hostile even to heavenly love,
Unask'd at Psyche's bridal feast to share,
Mad with neglect and envious of the fair,
Fierce as the noxious blast thou cleav'd the skies
And sought the hesperian Garden's golden prize.
The guardian Dragon in himself an host
Aw'd by the presence slumberd at his post
The timid sisters with prophetic fire
Proffered the fatal fruit and fear'd thy wrathful ire
With vengfull pleasure pleas'd the Goddess heard
Of future woes: and then her choice preferred
The shining mischief to herself she took
Love felt the wound and Troy's foundations shook...'

There are also versions of the first two lines in the ‘Windsor, Eaton’ sketchbook, which is usually dated c. 1807 but may well, because of the relationship to this picture exhibited early in 1806, have been begun a year or two earlier (XCVII–83 and 83 verso).

The apple chosen by Discord and claimed at the bridal feast was that eventually awarded by Paris. In the sources the bridal feast was that of Peleus and Thetis, not Psyche, who was introduced, Gage suggests, as a symbol of mercurial water, this picture being, it would seem, like Jason and Apollo killing Python (Nos. 19 [N00471] and 115 [N00488]), in part an alchemical allegory. The Hesperides, the nymphs of sunset and daughters of night, would represent air. Ruskin points out that two of them, Ægle and Erytheia, represent Brightness and Blushing (the other two are Hestia the spirit of the Hearth, and Arethusa, the Ministering spirit) while the fruit they guard is Juno's fruit, the wealth of the earth. The dragon is Ladon, brother of the dragon slain by Jason; almost merging with the mountain ridge, it embodies the elements of fire and earth.

Gage also points out the similarity between the last two lines of Turner's Ode and Milton's description of Eve plucking the Apple in Paradise Lost ix, thus linking the theme with the Biblical Fall. This echoes Ruskin's conclusion, in the fifth volume of Modern Painters (nearly a whole chapter of which, ‘the Nereid's Guard’, is devoted to this picture), that this ‘is our English painter's first great religious picture ... the Assumption of the Dragon; ... the fair blooming of the Hesperid meadows fades into ashes beneath the Nereid's Guard’. The picture was thus, for Ruskin, the first of the long series of works in which Turner portrayed the moral and physical decline of his country.

Ruskin also, in his notes on the Turners shown at Marlborough House in 1856, pointed to the combined influence of Poussin and the Alps in this picture. Later, in the manuscript for Modern Painters, he described the picture as ‘much spoiled by cleaning’, but this note was not published.

There seems to have been no comment in the press on Turner's contribution to the 1806 British Institution exhibition, but Farington, on 5 April 1806, records that he dined with Beaumont and that ‘Turner's pictures at the British Institution were spoken of.—Sir George said they appeared to him to be like the works of an old man who had ideas but had lost his power of execution. — He said Havil [William Havell, the painter, 1782–1857] speaks of Turner as being superior to Claude, —Poussin, or any other’. Thomas Daniell, also there, ‘sd. that Turner's pictures appeared to him to resemble tapestry’. Farington had already recorded on 16 February that ‘Daniell has seen the pictures now arranged at the British Institution ... The room in which the landscapes are hung is too dark, and all the pictures suffer from it, his own included ... Turner's pictures of ‘Echo’ [No. 53] and the ‘Hesperian Fruit’ look like old Tapestry as to general color & effect.’

In 1808, when Turner exhibited the picture again in his own gallery, it was on the whole praised by John Landseer(?) in the Review of Publications of Art. ‘We have no where seen more loftiness of thought displayed in landscape painting than in the middle ground and distant mountains of this picture. Its rocks and rolling clouds, and dreadful precipices, and romantic cataract; and the dragon which guards the pass, are all conceived and executed in a style which may justly entitle it to be called sublime: and its grey obscurity and golden light, are in full harmony with the general wild aspect of the scene, and with the terror which its towering rocks and ever-watchful dragon inspires.

'The idea of the situation of this dragon appears to have been suggested by that of the Polyphemus of Nicolas Poussin [repr. Anthony Blunt, Nicolas Poussin 1966, plates vol., pl. 190; the picture was in Russia from 1772 but there were copies in England early in the nineteenth century, see Blunt, op. cit., Critical Catatalogue, p. 125] ... Yet the dragon and its sublime accompaniments are his own; and there is a spirit of enterprise and loftiness of enthusiasm in this part of the picture which may justify the connoisseur, if not the critic, in calling it inspiration ... But the vale below, not withstanding that it has many very beautiful parts, conveys, on the whole, more the idea of being the approach to the garden of the Hesperides, than the garden itself ... It is however a highly poetical scene, and its terrible acclivities, its lofty trees, its crystal fountains, and its golden fruits, cannot fail to delight those minds which Mr. Turner here means to address.’

Ziff (1963) has also pointed out the continuing influence of Poussin, in particular the three women by the spring on the left of the picture who are derived with varying degrees of closeness from the similar group on the right of Poussin's Eliezar and Rebecca which Turner would have seen in the Louvre in 1802. Finley suggests that Turner derived the Poussinesque landscape through the medium of Watteau's early Acis and Galatea, which he could have known through an engraving (repr. op. cit., pl. 42b).
This picture was priced at £400 in a note, probably of c. 1810, in Turner's ‘Finance’ sketchbook (CXXII-36; for the date see Nos. 53 and 56 [N00474]).

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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