Formal Analysis: J.M.W. Turner’s “Glaucus and Scylla” (1841)

J.M.W. Turner, "Glaucus and Scylla" (1841)Typically recognized for his amazing renditions of the natural landscape, Joseph Mallord William Turner’s Glaucus and Scylla (1841), currently hanging in the permanent collection of the Kimbell Art Museum, takes a different approach to the landscape. Surrounded by other famous landscape painters of the 19th century including, Friedrich, Corot, and Bonington, Turner’s painting appears to deemphasize the landscape in order to present a moral argument. Measuring only 30 7/8” x 30 1/2”, the small scale Glaucus and Scylla is striking because the natural landscape is not the central focus of Turner’s imagery. Inspired by Ovid’s story of Glaucus and Scylla from Metamorphoses, J.M.W. Turner’s visual interpretation of the Glaucus and Scylla tale conveys a moral message of lust, jealousy, and vengeance, through the use of color, brushstroke and the arrangement of narrative elements.

By using a limited color palette in Glaucus and Scylla, Turner emphasizes the key segments and characters in Ovid’s story. Shades of red, orange and yellow compose the bulk of the color used in Turner’s painting. Although hints of blue and sections of brown draw attention to the main figures including, Glaucus, who is surrounded by a mysterious brown cloud, and Scylla, who is draped in a stunning blue fabric. Warm colors, like the reds and yellows, push the foreground of the painting, while cooler colors, like the blues around the mountain scenery, help to create the sense of depth and pull the eye to the background. The intense yellow of the sun, representing the jealous Circe, pulls the shape forward almost eliminating the sense of depth to the picture plane; however, red radiating from it carries the eye through the narrative sequence of Circe’s jealousy of Glaucus’ love for Scylla. Another element of the painting alluding to Circe’s jealously is the dark brown cliff found on the far left of the canvas close to the sun. This dark portion of paint highlights the lust driven and jealous nature of Circe in comparison to the other figures and colors that engulf them. Limiting the color palette in Glaucus and Scylla allows Turner’s audience to easily discern the major characters of Ovid’s story, Scylla, Glaucus, and Circe, but his application of paint to canvas is what creates the sense of movement in the painting.

One of the most striking features in J.M.W. Turner’s Glaucus and Scylla is the sense of movement conveyed by his brushstroke and application of paint onto the canvas. This artistic feature of Turner’s work helps to convey a sense of frenzied action and urgency in Glaucus and Scylla. Starting with the sun in the background and moving right towards Glaucus, Turner’s brushstroke appears steady and strong. As the red light hits the back of Glaucus, however, the movement of line becomes more random and confusing creating the sense of movement on the canvas. Running out of the water, Scylla is surrounded by a similar style of brushstroke but her body is more fluid and discernible compared to that of Glaucus. Besides the three main characters of Ovid’s story, Circe, Glaucus, and Scylla, the surrounding natural landscape remains relatively calm. Deemphasizing the landscape with solid brushstrokes reflects how Turner wanted the narrative of Ovid’s story to be our central focus.

Glaucus and Scylla is organized in an almost linear format from left to right showing the moral characteristics of lust, jealousy, and vengeance in Turner’s own visual language. Beginning with the sun in the left background, representing Circe, the light, signifying her jealousy, moves across the canvas covering Gluacus and shining on Scylla. By doing this, Turner shows how Circe had a hand in how the story unraveled. In the mid-ground, Glaucus reaches his arms out for Scylla, only to be engulfed by the lust and jealousy of Circe. Scylla, positioned more in the foreground, runs away from Glaucus but is still within reach of Circe’s radiating light. Blues that encompass both Scylla and the mountain scenery suggest that Circe will eventually have her final vengeance on her; ultimately, turning Scylla into a part of the natural landscape. Arranging the elements of the painting in this manner, Turner skillfully and almost unknowingly to the audience illustrates his version of Ovid’s tale.

Without previous knowledge of Ovid’s story, Turner’s painting for an audience unfamiliar with Ovid might find the overall meaning difficult to read. But on the most basic level though, Turner’s imagery is still easily deciphered. Sticking to mainly hues of red, yellow and orange, the points where browns and blues are introduced stand out as the most important aspects of the painting. Movement, created by Turner’s brushstroke, in Glaucus and Scylla is frenzied and urgent in nature, drawing the eye through the narrative and across the picture plane. Finally, the arrangement of the narrative elements, from left background to right foreground, all help to pass along the message of the disasters associated with the sins of lust, jealousy, and vengeance originally portrayed in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

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