enero 2019 | 12
Publicación sobre arte, diseño y educación
ISSN 2255-4564
The Goddess of Discord
in the Gardens of the Hesperides*

John Ruskin

* Exhibited at the British Institution in 1806, under the title, The Goddess of Discord choosing the Apple of Contention in the Garden of the Hesperides.
John RuskinIn the year 1802, Turner seems to have visited Switzerland for the first time; up to that date, no Swiss subject appears in the catalogues as having been exhibited by him; but in 1803, besides the Calais Pier, we find "24. Bonneville, Savoy, with Mont Blanc. 110. The Opening of the Festival of the Vintage at Maon. 237. Chateau de St. Michael, Bonneville, Savoy. 384. St. Hugo denouncing vengeance on the Shepherds of Cormayeur, in the Val d'Aosta. And 396. Glacier and Source of the Arveron"; showing with what enthusiasm he entered on the new fields opened to him in the Alps.
The Goddess of Discord choosing the Apple of Contention in the Garden of the Hesperides

This wonderful picture of the Hesperides is, however, the first composition  in which Turner introduced the mountain knowledge he had gained in his Swiss journey: and it is a combination of these Swiss experiences, under the guidance of Nicolas Poussin, whose type of landscape has been followed throughout. Nearly all the faults of the picture are owing to Poussin; and all its virtues to the Alps. I say nearly  all the faults of the picture, because it would not be fair to charge Poussin wholly with its sombre colour, inasmuch as many of his landscapes are beautifully golden and deep blue. Possibly the Goddess of Discord may have had something to do with the matter; and the shadow of her presence may have been cast on laurel bough and golden fruit; but I am not disposed to attribute such a piece of far-fetched fancy to Turner at this period; and I suppose it to be partly owing to the course of his quiet practice, partly to his knowledge of the more sombre pictures of Poussin rather than of the splendid ones, and partly to the continued influence of Wilson and Morland, that the garden of the Hesperides is so particularly dull a place. But it is a sorrowful fault in the conception that it should be so.

Indeed, unless we were expressly assured of the fact, I question whether we should have found out that these were gardens at all, as they have the appearance rather of wild mountain ground, broken and rocky; with a pool of gloomy water; some heavy groups of trees, of the species grown on Clapham Common; and some bushes bearing very unripe and pale pippins - approaching in no wise the beauty of a Devonshire or Normandy orchard, much less that of an orange grove, and, least of all, of such fruit as goddesses would be likely to quarrel for.

But there are much worse errors in the picture than these. We may grant the grey colour to Turner's system; we may accept the wild ground as the only kind of garden which would be probable under Atlas; though the places which Discord seeks, and the dragons guard, are usually of a nature at once brighter and baser. But we cannot accept the impossibilities of mountain form into which the wretched system of Poussin's idealism moulded Turner's memory of the Alps. It is not possible  that hill masses on this scale, should be divided into these simple, steep, and stone-like forms. Great mountains, however bold, are always full of endless fracture and detail, and indicate on the brows and edges of their cliffs, both the multitudinousness, and the deeply wearing continuance, of the force of time, and stream, and tempest. This evidence of subdivision and prolonged endurance is always more and more distinct as the scale increases; the simple curves which are true for a thousand feet are false at three thousand, and falser at ten thousand; and the forms here adopted by Turner are not mountain forms at all, but those of small fragments of limestone, with a few loose stones at the top of them, magnified by mist into mountains. All this was the result of Idealism. Nature's mountains were not grand, nor broad, nor bold, nor steep enough. Poussin only knew what they should be, and the Alps must be rough-hewn to his mind.

Farther, note the enormous torrent which roars down behind the dragon, above the main group of trees. In nature, that torrent would have worn for itself a profound bed, full of roundings and wrinkled lateral gulphs. Here, it merely dashes among the squared stones as if it had just been turned on by a New River company. And it has not only had no effect on its bed, but appears quite unable to find its way to the bottom, for we see nothing more of it after it has got down behind the tree tops. In reality, the whole valley beneath would have been filled by a mass of rounded stones and debris by such a torrent as that.

But farther. When the streams are so lively in the distance, one might at least expect them not to be stagnant in the foreground, and if we may have no orderly gravel walks, nor gay beds of flowers in our garden, but only large stones and bushes, we might surely have had the pleasantness of a clear mountain stream. But Poussin never allowed mountain streams; nothing but dead water was proper in a classical foreground; so we have the brown pool with a water-lily or two, and a conventional fountain, falling, not into a rocky trough, or a grassy hollow, but into a large glass bowl or tureen. This anticipation of the beauties of the Soulages collection, given in charge to the dragon together with his apples, "Glass, with care," is certainly not Poussin's fault, but a caprice of Turner's own.

In the published catalogue the reader will find it stated that the "colour  and texture of this picture are as rich and sound as the ideas are noble, and universally intelligible." The ideas are  noble indeed; for the most part: - noble in spite of Poussin, and intelligible in spite of Marlborough House darkness; but the statement that the colour is rich only shows what curious ideas people in general have about colour. I do not call it a work in colour at all. It is a simple study in grey and brown, heightened with a red drapery, and cooled with a blue opening in the sky. But colour, properly so called, there is as yet none; nothing but the usual brown trees near, grey trees far off, brown stonework, and black shadow. And it is another notable proof of the terrible power of precedent on the strongest human mind, that just as Vandevelde kept Turner for twenty years from seeing that the sea was wet, so Poussin kept Turner for twenty years from seeing that the Alps were rosy, and that grass was green. It would be a wonderful lesson for us all if we could for a moment set a true piece of Swiss foreground and mountain beside that brown shore and those barren crags. The moss arabesques of violet and silver; the delicate springing of the myrtille leaves along the clefts of shade, and blue bloom of their half seen fruit; the rosy flashes of rhododendron-flame from among the pine roots, and their crests of crimson, sharp against the deep Alpine air, from the ridges of grey rock; the gentian's peace of pale, ineffable azure, as if strange stars had been made for earth out of the blue light of heaven; the soft spaces of mountain grass, for ever young, over which the morning dew is dashed so deep that it looks, under the first long sun-rays, like a white veil falling folded upon the hills; wreathing itself soon away into silvery tresses of cloud, braided in and out among the pines, and leaving all the fair glades and hillocks warm with the pale green glow of grassy life, and whispering with lapse of everlasting springs. Infinite tenderness mingled with this infinite power, and the far away summits, alternate pearl and purple, ruling it from their stainless rest. A time came when the human heart, whose openings we are watching, could feel these things, but we must not talk too much of its achievements yet.

There is, however, one image in the landscape which, in its kind, is as noble as may be - the dragon that guards and darkens it; a goodly watch-tower he has; and a goodly pharos he will make of it at midnight, when the fire glares hottest from the eyes of the ghastly sentinel. There is something very wonderful, it seems to me, in this anticipation, by Turner, of the grandest reaches of recent inquiry into the form of the dragons of the old earth. I do not know at what period the first hints were given of the existence of their remains; but certainly no definite statements of their probable forms were given either by Buckland, Owell, or Conybeare before 1815; yet this saurian of Turner's is very nearly an exact counterpart of the model of the Iguanodon, now the guardian of the Hesperian Gardens of the Crystal Palace, wings only excepted, which are, here, almost accurately, those of a pterodactyle. The instinctive grasp which the healthy imagination takes of possible  truth, even in its wildest flights, was never more marvellously demonstrated.*

* Compare Modern Painters,  vol. iii. ch. viii. §§ 12, etc.

I am very anxious to get this picture hung in better light, in order that the expression of the dragon's head may be well seen, and all the mighty articulations of his body, rolling in great iron waves, a cataract of coiling strength and crashing armour, down among the mountain rents. Fancy him moving, and the roaring of the ground under his rings; the grinding down of the rocks by his toothed whorls; the skeleton glacier of him in thunderous march, and the ashes of the hills rising round him like smoke, and encompassing him like a curtain!

I have already alluded to the love of the terrible grotesque which mingled in no small measure with the love of the beautiful in Turner's mind, as it did in Tintoret's. The reader will find farther inquiries into this subject in the eighth chapter of the third volume of Modern Painters,  and I need only notice here the peculiar naturalness  which there is in Turner's grotesque, and the thirst for largeness which characterizes his conception of animals as well as landscapes. No serpent or dragon was ever conceived before, either so vast, or so probable,  as these of the Jason and Hesperides, or the Python of No. 488 (see note on the picture), while the "Rizpah, the Daughter of Aiah" (464) shows the same grasp of terror exerted in another direction, and connecting the English landscape painter, bred as he was in the cold and severe classical school, with the German interpreters of fantastic or pathetic superstition.

John Ruskin JMW Turner
2019. Infolio
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