Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Golden Bough

exhibited 1834

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1041 × 1638 mm
frame: 1455 × 2046 × 110 mm
Presented by Robert Vernon 1847

Display caption

This subject comes from Virgil’s poem, the Aeneid. The Trojan hero, Aeneas, has come to Cumae to consult the Sibyl, a prophetess. She tells him he can only enter the Underworld to meet the ghost of his father if he offers Proserpine a golden bough cut from a sacred tree.

Turner shows the Sibyl holding a sickle and the freshly cut bough,in front of Lake Avernus, the legendary gateway to the Underworld. The dancing figures are the Fates. Like the snake in the foreground, they hint at death and the mysteries of the Underworld, amidst the beauty of the landscape.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

355. [N00371] The Golden Bough Exh. 1834


Canvas, 41 × 64 1/2 (104 × 163·5)

Coll. Robert Vernon, purchased before its exhibition at the R.A. 1834 and given to the National Gallery 1847; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1929.

Exh. R.A. 1834 (75); Toronto and Ottawa 1951 (8, repr.); Paris 1953 (81, pl. 33); Australian tour 1960 (11); Edinburgh 1968 (12).

Lit. ‘The Vernon Gallery: The Golden Bough’ in Art Journal 1851, p. 132, engr. T. A. Prior; Hall ii 1851, no. 22, engr. T.A. Prior; Hall 18512, p. 4 no. 7; Burnet 1852, p. 107, engr.; Cunningham 1852, pp. 29, 39, 44; Waagen 1854, i, p. 385; Ruskin 1857 and 1860 (1903–12, xiii, pp. 133, 159; vii, p. 421); Wornum 1857, ii, engr.; Thornbury 1862, i, p. 322; Wornum 1875, pp. 65–6, engr.; Thornbury 1877, p. 449; Vernon Heath, letter to The Times 23 April 1878; Hamerton 1879, pp. 261–3; Vernon Heath, Recollections 1892, pp. 5–7; Bell 1901, p. 124 no. 190; Armstrong 1902, pp. 192, 218; MacColl 1920, pp. 1–2; Whitley 1930, pp. 281–2; Falk 1938, pp. 159–60; Finberg 1961, pp. 347, 498 no. 447; Kitson 1964, p. 75, repr. p. 56; Lindsay 1966, pp. 72, 180; Reynolds 1969, p. 161, pl. 144; Gage 1974, pp. 74–5, pl. 13 (caption wrongly exchanged with pl. 16); Martin Meisel, ‘The Material Sublime: John Martin, Byron, Turner, and the Theater’, Kroeber and Walling 1978, pp. 230–2, pl. 63.

Exhibited in 1834 with the reference ‘(M.S., “Fallacies of Hope”)’; Turner's original verses were, according to a report heard by Cunningham, suppressed by the Council of the R.A. Turner's original title (though not in his hand), number 1 on the list of his 1834 R.A. exhibits in the Tate Gallery archives, was also fuller: ‘The Sibyl [the ‘i’ and ‘y’ originally written the other way round] gathering the golden bough’, but the MS bears no verses. The painting has sometimes been described under the fuller title of ‘Lake Avernus, the Fates and the Golden Bough’.

Ruskin, talking of The Bay of Baiae (No. 230 [N00505]), mentions the story of Deiphobe, the Cumaean Sibyl, and continues, ‘The fable seems to have made a strong impression on Turner's mind, the picture of the “Golden Bough” being a sequence to this; showing the Lake of Avernus, and Deiphobe, now bearing the golden bough—the guide of Æneas to the shades. In both these pictures there is a snake in the foreground among the fairest leafage, a type of terror or temptation, which is associated with the lovely landscapes; and it is curious that Turner seems to have exerted all his strength to give the most alluring loveliness to the soft descents of the Avernus lake’.

As Gage has pointed out, Turner seems to have followed Virgil's Æneid vi, 136 ff., in the translation of Christopher Pitt. Only this version, unlike Dryden's, refers to the Golden Bough and, in its reference to the ‘nether world’ of ‘the Queen of Stygian Jove’, supplies a pretext for Turner's possible references to Hades and the Fates. The snake, and what seems to be a fox playing with it below the tree on the right, are seen by Gage as a reference to the underworld because, according to Aristotle, they both live underground; Gage also sees the fragment of a frieze or sarcophagus as having a similar reference.

Two or three years after Vernon bought the picture his nephew Vernon Heath noticed that a figure in the foreground was splitting away. Turner went to see the picture ‘and in an instant exclaimed, “Why, this is only paper! I now remember all about it. I determined, the picture being all but finished, to paint a nude figure in the foreground, and with this intention went one night to the Life School at the Royal Academy, and made a sketch in my note-book. Finding, next day, that it was the exact size I required my figure to be, I carefully, by its outline, cut it out of the book and fixed it on to the picture, intending, when I had time, to paint the figure in properly. But I forgot this entirely, and do not think I should have remembered but for you.” ... The Sybil picture was then sent to Queen Anne Street and the present figure painted in.’ Gage identifies the original figure with the fragment in the British Museum, in oil on paper (CCCLXIV-395, repr. op. cit. pl. 17), which in fact shows three figures, identified by him as the Fates, which would have been replaced by the two figures now seen at the foot of the tree on the right.

There is a large colour sketch for the composition in the British Museum (CCLXIII-323).

Several critics saw Turner's conception as being let down by his execution. According to the Athenaeum for 10 May 1834 ‘the scene is wild and splendid—almost dim through excess of brightness, and the conception is wonderful, yet the slight and slovenly handling presses sorely upon us, and we mingle regret with admiration.’ A similar notice appeared in the Morning Chronicle for 26 May, which particularly attacked the picture's yellowness. On the other hand the Literary Gazette, 31 May, wrote that ‘Much criticism has been bestowed on these extraordinary performances’—this picture and The Fountain of Indolence (No. 354)—‘and to some they are no doubt justly liable. Yet by what living artist but Mr. Turner could they have been produced? Whose mind is so replete with rare and gorgeous landscape imagery? What other hand could have produced such streams of rich and lucid colour over the canvass or have filled it with such masses—indistinct and unintelligible when closely inspected, but, when viewed at proper distance, assuming shape and meaning, and delighting the eye with the finest poetical and pictorial beauty?’

The composition was used, after Turner's death, by William Gordon for the setting for Act II, Scene 1 of a 1856 production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (repr. Meisel, op. cit., pl. 62).

The picture has suffered from considerable loss of glazes, particularly on and around the lake and on the buildings on the left.

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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