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.
This is one of Turner’s most ambitious late mythological paintings in which he brought together a range of sources to create his own interpretation of a legend.
The story of Hero and Leander was originally told by Musaeus, a Greek poet of the fourth or fifth century BC. Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite, lived in a tower in Sestos on the Hellespont strait, which separates Europe from Asia. She was in love with Leander, a young man from Abydos on 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. On seeing his dead body, Hero threw herself off her tower to join him in death. Although Turner cited an English translation of Masaeus as his source, he also included seven lines of his own poetry in the Royal Academy catalogue when the painting was exhibited in 1837.
A sketchbook study from 1802 suggests that Turner had planned a picture of Hero and Leander some 35 years before he produced this picture. The story had been painted by many artists during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, most notably by Rubens, but Turner was most likely prompted to create his version when paintings by contemporaries, Henry Howard and William Etty, were exhibited in 1806 and 1827. A further impetus came when Lord Byron’s poem, The Bride of Abydos, was published in 1813. Abydos was Leander’s home, and the poem also included reference to his and Hero’s tragic fate. Turner was a keen admirer of Byron, and had illustrated an edition of his works, so he would have known about the poem. In May 1810 Byron had also famously swum across the Hellespont from Sestos to Abydos, this celebrated feat stimulating a surge of interest in the story of the doomed couple.
The two lovers are not the largest figures in the painting. Turner breaks with the conventions of history painting, which required the principal characters be in or near the centre of the picture, and places them almost hidden in shadow at the water’s edge as Leander prepares to leave. Above them on the terrace, a winged Cupid, who has cast his bow and quiver on the ground, holds up a lamp and a torch. Hymen stands beside him. Around them, Turner constructs an imaginary location from various classical architectural elements, a wide staircase and a large floor mosaic. On the right, an exotic ‘Moorish’ tower, representing Abydos on the Turkish coast, is just visible behind the large, jagged rocks upon which ghostly sea nymphs have gathered.
As Turner’s verse states, the night is ending, as ‘love yet lingers'. Although dawn is just breaking, a crescent moon is still visible in the turbulent blue-black sky. Turner uses the darkness and deep shadows to heighten the drama of the scene and to perhaps hint at the tragedy about to occur, as Leander leaves Hero, never to return.
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