Turner’s Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus – a reading

Ulysses deriding Polyphemus’ is an 1829 work by Turner which depicts the tale from Book IX of Homer’s Odyssey of Ulysses (Odysseus’ name in latin) and his encounter with the cyclops Polyphemus which results in Ulysses blinding the one-eyed giant and
sailing away, taunting the son of Poseidon, an action which comes back to bite him when the sea god and father of Polyphemus sends storms their way. Acclaimed as the ‘central picture of Turner’s career’ by critic John Ruskin, this painting encapsulates the
historic or rather mythological subject matter which Turner throughout his career has been fond of, evidenced in such works as ‘Dido building Carthage’ or ‘snowstorm: Hannibal crossing the alps’. It is unusual for Turner in its relatively colour palette which
range from deep blues to butter yellows in Turner’s sunrise over the escaping ships. Ulysses raises his arms in triumph and lifts the flaming torch with which he blinded the cyclops. He is presented as the ultimate victor at this point, clad in red the colour of
regality and still wearing his helmet as a crown.

The Claudian sunset which appears in so many of Turner’s works is echoed here in the sunrise but the sun burgeons with lights and confidently casts its rays across the morning sky, instead of melting into the horizon as usual inTurner’s seascapes. The rising sun, drawn by the faint form of Apollo’s horse-drawn chariot, parallels the birth of a new hope which the vanquishing of the foe presented for Ulysses and his men at this point of their voyage homewards. The sun is not centred but sits on the right half of the composition, allowing room for Turner to paint the cliffs upon which the defeated Polyphemus’ kneels, preparing to hurl a boulder in his rage at the ships. He is partially shrouded in mist, perhaps a connotation to his blindness.

The danger of the missile about to be launched is imminent and adds a tension to this scene, contrasted by the seemingly serene composition. The fiery reds are the only details which denote a foreshadowed danger to my eye. They outline the figure of Polyphemus as well as douse the figures of the ships in an eerie glow. The figures themselves are so great in number that they are barely contained by the ships. Nymphs flock in the foreground in the water, reminding us of the divinity which each
element holds in this universe which Turner depicts. Thinking philosophically, the tale depicted is one of the conflict between man and beast, the foe here representing a shepherd-figure who ultimately lives a peaceful life in nature before being intruded upon
by Ulysses and his hordes of men.

Morally, I believe the fault lies not with the ‘monster’ but with the declared hero, as is surprisingly common in greek mythology. While the conflict presented here is not inherently between man and nature, there is much to be
derived about the nature of human existence from the figure of Ulysses and his army. Upon conquering the ‘beast’, they leave with much wine and treasure stolen from his lair and curse him as they leave. Although a reach, there could be something to be said
about the brash confidence of Ulysses and his men and how it compares to that of the colonial powers of the mid 19th century at which this painting was produced. Furthermore, the cyclops being a figure almost entirely at one with nature as a shepherd
and cave dweller, lives a quiet life tending to his flocks and making use of the natural produce which his island landscape provides.

By attacking the cyclops’ solitary arcadia, Ulysses brings his war-stained morals into a land untouched by the perils of warfare
and thus he disrupts the natural order for the sake of his pillaging. Though the cliffs tower above the ships and the glow of the ascending sun is strong, the ships full of men present a body too prominent to render this painting an example of the ‘sublime’.
Instead, the ships form part of the majesty of this scene, although their inferiority to the natural world is soon to be made clear by the hurling of Polyphemus’ rock and the stormy wrath of his father who will blow their ships off course soon after this jubilant
moment occurs. The knowledge of Poseidons actions after this moment takes place, acknowledges the strength of the ocean over man. As a whole, the tale does use the natural world as a theatre for presenting ideas which Turner highlights through his composition, and in his stylising of the landscape, Turner brings certain aspects forwards in our mind.