Ulysses is standing aloft on his ship deriding the Cyclops, whom he and his companions have just left blinded, and invoking the vengeance of Neptune. One of the flags is painted with the scene of the Trojan Horse. The horses of the Sun are rising above the horizon ('Odyssey', Book 9).
Apparently the idea was in Turner's mind as early as about 1807, if this is the correct date of a sketchbook which contains a rough drawing of the subject. The picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1829.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): We tend to take the sun for granted in paintings as we never do in life – skipping over it in the background to look at the scene it illuminates. But as Robert Mighall, author of the cultural history 'Sunshine', explains, there’s a fascinating story behind its representation in art.
Robert Mighall: I was writing a book about the sun and thought I’d investigate it in art. So I walked around the Gallery one day and it struck me that really you didn’t see the sun in the skies of art, not until the 17th century. You see things that kind of look like the sun, but they’re not actually the sun. They’re more sort of yellow, golden discs that serve another purpose, which is really there to enhance divinity. The most obvious example of this is the halo, which is really just a solar disc. It was used on pagan gods – the Roman god of the sun had this convention of when he was personified he had this disc around his head to show his golden rays and that was just quite literally… the assets of that were stripped and used in Christian iconography from then onwards. So that’s where we get the halo from.
But there are other examples as well, which is where the sun is quite literally the vehicle for divine presence, for divine manifestation in the terrestrial world. A good example of this is Treviso’s painting 'The Adoration of the Kings' from around 1524. It’s quite a chaotic painting; it’s got the holy family in the centre, but also a whole host… a great chaotic crowd of people that have come to, in a sense, observe what’s going on. The holy family are quite natural; they’ve only just got halos – it’s more like little golden smudges on top of their head – and they’re within this scene of everyday life. It could easily be by Brueghel but in an Italian setting. But then when you look above the horizon, there’s this rather bizarre manifestation which is something that looks like the sun – a great golden disc bursting through the skies – and a whole host, a whole heavenly host, look like they’ve hitched a ride on it, like some vast solar surfboard that they’ve ridden into town on. It could easily be something from Monty Python.
Miranda Hinkley: I mean it seems completely disconnected from what’s going on below. It does have a quite comedic aspect.
Robert Mighall: Well, it’s quite surreal. The world, the naturalistic world, is depicted with reasonable fidelity; I mean, it’s quite naturalistic, there’s the laws of perspective, there’s a lot of showing off of the new kind of tricks of art, if you will, so that’s all well and good – that’s all very natural. And then there’s this other world, the world above, which seems to… which doesn’t obey those rules. It obeys its own rules. I think that’s very typical of the depiction of the skies before the 17th century, before landscape painting, before people started painting landscape as a subject in its own right. The world was the world and the heavens were the heavens – they were the skies, but they were also the heavens, a space where anything could happen. And I think the idea is that the sun is part of the heavens, so it’s distant and remote and still very very god-like and awe-inspiring.
Miranda Hinkley: So what happens, Robert, as we move through the centuries – is that something that changes?
Robert Mighall: When you get… when landscape comes into its own as a subject of art, the skies and also the sun start to become more naturalistically represented, more recognisable as the sun, rather than this kind of vehicle for divine manifestation.
Miranda Hinkley: So we’re now in front of 'Ulysses deriding Polyphemus' and this was painted in 1829. Completely different depiction of the sun…
Robert Mighall: The thing about this painting is that the sun is the most important thing that’s going on there. What’s interesting is he… the title indicates that this is a history painting, which was considered at the time the most important genre and certainly the one you could charge the most money for. So he’s depicting a scene from Homer’s 'Odyssey', which tells how Ulysses has blinded Polyphemus, he’s tricked Polyphemus, and they’re riding away, and he’s now deriding him – he’s kind of taunting him – but really you’d be forgiven for not seeing that immediately and not being able to identify the principle actors in this drama. Polyphemus, the Cyclops, is this kind of lowering shape that’s blending into the mountains over on the left. And Ulysses is very nearly lost in the crowd on the ship – a ship hanging all over with people, crowded with people and you can just about make him out because he’s depicted in red.
But really the real star of the show and the thing that really interested Turner is this spectacular solar sunset over on the right-hand side just above the horizon, and it really dominates the picture. Everything about the composition draws your eye towards this sunset. You’ve got the rocks and the brow of another ship there, that really just frame it and draw your eye towards it. And really you can see that’s the thing that interested him most and that’s very typical of Turner, specially in the later paintings, and this is considered a turning point in that respect, where he went from… he became obsessed with this idea of depicting sunlight, making the intangible, tangible. So really he uses the pretext of a history painting to start exploring that, and we see that in later paintings where he really, in a sense, abandoned the pretext of a different kind of genre, and just started to study light, explore light, and try and make sunlight tangible.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Robert Mighall.