Joseph Mallord William Turner

Three Figures, after Francesco Primaticcio


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite on paper
Support: 114 × 128 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest LXXII 88 a

Catalogue entry

Turner turned the sketchbook to landscape format to make this drawing. Hitherto unidentified, its source has recently been traced to Francesco Primaticcio (1504–70) by Vincent Delieuvin,1 who cites especially a small ink and wash drawing2 from the former French royal collection that was included in a display of drawings in the Louvre’s Galerie d’Apollon in 1802. This was one of a series of exhibitions of drawings organised mainly by Morel d’Arleux, curator of prints and drawings since 1797.3 If Turner’s drawing was made from this sheet, it is the only evidence of his having looked at master drawings as well as paintings in 1802. However, his observation is sketchy and lacks the detail of Primaticcio’s drawing, concentrating on outlines of the central, reclining figure and others but excluding the surrounding horses, sea and rays of light. The possibility must also be considered that Turner visited Fontainebleau, the former royal hunting lodge outside Paris, and worked from the painted version of the composition on the ceiling of the vestibule of the Porte Dorée of the palace. He certainly passed near Fontainebleau and through the surrounding forest on his way south towards the Alps in 1802. The poor condition of the fresco at this time may have accounted for the relative vagueness of Turner’s drawing.
Primaticcio executed cycles of painted decorations in the Mannerist style at Fontainebleau from 1532, taking over as chief painter there on the death of Rosso Fiorentino in 1540. The Porte Dorée was designed by Gilles le Breton, 1528–40, in the style of a triumphal arch as the south entrance to the palace’s Cour Ovale.
The subject of this composition by Primaticcio has been disputed. In the Notices des dessins for the 1802 display it was entitled ‘Marine Gods drawing the Horses of the Sun (‘Divinités marines amenant les chevaux du Soleil’)4 but it had attracted other interpretations before and has done since, the most recent being Night protecting sleeping Time from the Sun, Aurora (Dawn) awakening Sleep5 or Saturn sleeping among Tritons.6

David Blayney Brown
September 2008

Thanks are due to Vincent Delieuvin and his colleague Guillaume Faroult, both of the Département des Peintures, Musée du Louvre; email from the latter to Ian Warrell, 28 August 2008.
Cabinet des Dessins, Inv.8566.
Lina Propeck in Pierre Rosenberg and Marie-Anne Dupuy, Dominique-Vivant Denon: l’oeil de Napoléon, exhibition catalogue, Musée du Louvre, Paris 1999, pp.211, 214.
Notices des dessins originaux, esquisses peintes, cartons, gouaches, pastels, émaux et miniatures du Musée central des Arts. Exposés pour la première fois, dans la Galerie d’Apollon, en messidor de l’an X, Paris 1802, no.217.
For the iconography, critical history and related works see Primatice: Maître de Fontainebleau, exhibition catalogue, Musée du Louvre, Paris 2004, p.167.
Propeck in Rosenberg and Dupuy, p.222.

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