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Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Parting of Hero and Leander

Key facts
Full title The Parting of Hero and Leander - from the Greek of Musaeus
Artist Joseph Mallord William Turner
Artist dates 1775 - 1851
Date made before 1837
Medium and support Oil on canvas
Dimensions 146 × 236 cm
Acquisition credit Turner Bequest, 1856
Inventory number NG521
Location On loan: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, Chimei Museum, Tainan City, Taiwan
Collection Main Collection
Previous owners
The Parting of Hero and Leander
Joseph Mallord William Turner

This picture illustrates an ancient Greek myth that was retold by later writers, including the English romantic poet, Lord Byron. Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite, lived in a tower on the Hellespont strait, which separates Europe from Asia. She was in love with Leander, a young man from the Asian side. Every night she would hold up a lamp to guide him as he swam through the water to be with her. One night the lamp blew out, and he was drowned. Hero threw herself off her tower to join him in death.

Turner breaks with the conventions of history painting, which required the principal characters be in or near the centre of the picture, almost hiding the doomed couple in shadow at the water’s edge as Leander prepares to leave. Above them on the terrace, a winged Cupid holds up a lamp and a torch. Turner constructs an exotic location of classical architecture and large, jagged rocks set against a turbulent night sky.

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