The subject of this painting is taken from Book IX of Homer’s Odyssey. It shows Ulysses sailing from the island where Polyphemus, a one-eyed giant, had held him and his men captive. Wearing a helmet and a scarlet cloak, Ulysses raises his arms in victory as he stands on the deck of his ship, below a red banner, looking back at the island. He lifts the flaming torch with which he blinded Polyphemus, whose huge shadowy body lies sprawled across the clifftop that towers above. Luminous sea nymphs and flying fish gather at the ship’s prow as a blazing sun rises through the morning mists.
The painting signals the increasing role of colour and light in Turner’s historical landscapes. It also marks the increasingly expressive direction his painting was to follow and anticipates the visionary qualities of his late work. Writing in 1856, the English art critic John Ruskin declared it to be ‘the central picture of Turner’s career'.
The subject of this painting is taken from Book IX of Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey. Turner shows Ulysses sailing away from the island where Polyphemus – a man-eating cyclops (one-eyed giant) – had held him and his men captive.
Ulysses escaped by blinding Polyphemus as he slept. Wearing a helmet and a scarlet cloak, Ulysses stands beneath a red banner on his ship the morning after his escape, shouting his name to taunt the giant. As he looks back at the island, he raises his arms in victory and lifts the flaming torch with which he blinded the giant, whose enormous shadowy form lies sprawled across the clifftop that towers above. His left knee raised above the skyline, Polyphemus supports his head with a hand outlined in dark red as he prepares to hurl a boulder down upon the ship.
As Ulysses and his men make their escape, dawn arrives, represented by the brilliant disk of the sun pulled upwards by the horses of the sun god Apollo. Hard to see today, these horses were modelled in part upon those on the Parthenon frieze, which were on display at the British Museum from 1817. Although not mentioned in the poem, Turner includes a group of nereids – sea nymphs with stars on their foreheads – who, accompanied by flying fish, gather before the ship’s prow.
Ulysses deriding Polyphemus - Homer’s Odyssey was based on oil sketches Turner had made in Italy between August 1828 and February 1829. In Rome – where he may have seen Annibale Carraci’s Polyphemus frescoes in the Palazzo Farnese – he had exhibited several bold works, including Regulus (Tate, London) which included a dazzling yellow sun. The delay in shipping these canvases back to London from Rome forced Turner to produce new paintings, including this one, for the Royal Academy exhibition of 1829. The painting was a response to the sunrises of Claude, such as Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula, which Turner greatly admired.
The rich variety of colours – which range from deep cobalt blues and fiery reds to delicate pinks, greens and yellows – signals the increasing role of colour and light over what Turner described as ‘historic tone’ in his historical landscapes. This shift of emphasis was encouraged by his awareness of recent investigations into optics, including Goethe’s Theory of Colours (1810), which he probably discussed with his friend and fellow artist Charles Eastlake, who later translated Goethe’s book.
The painting had a mixed reception, with one hostile review referring to its ‘colouring gone mad … with all the vehement contrasts of a kaleidoscope or Persian carpet‘. However, writing soon after Turner’s death, the English art critic John Ruskin declared it to be ‘the central picture of Turner’s career’. This work marks the increasingly expressive direction Turner’s painting was to follow and anticipates the visionary qualities of his late work.
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