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Turner and the Sublime

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Turner and the Sublime

In Romantic art, nature—with its uncontrollable power, unpredictability, and potential for cataclysmic extremes—offered an alternative to the ordered world of Enlightenment thought. The violent and terrifying images of nature conjured by Romantic artists recalled the eighteenth-century aesthetic of the Sublime. An artist that stood out among the many individuals of this time was Joseph Mallord William Turner. Turner was one of the most influential landscape painters in England. His style consisted of oil painting, watercolour, and etching. Through his career he went through different ways of expressing his talent when painting. At the beginning of his career, his work consisted of solid objects and detail but as time moved forward his focus turned towards accentuating color and light. Fascinated with natural and atmospheric elements, Turner stood out as an early-impressionist for he violated the rules of academic painting, and for this was highly criticized by his fellow contemporaries. Despite the critics, Turner never ceased to provoke through these turbulent, chaotic forces that haunted his paintings. J.M.W. Turner, born in 1775, came from a working-class family. His father, William Turner, was a barber and wigmaker while his mother, Mary Marshall, came from a family of butchers. Turner's mother was mentally unbalanced, and her instability was aggravated by the fatal illness of Turner's younger sister. As a result, Turner was sent to stay with an uncle in Brentford, a small market town to the west of London. There, he attended school and began his first drawings. When his formal schooling was completed, Turner went back to London where he worked under various architects. A few years after, he was accepted at the Royal Academy Art School at age fourteen. In order to pursue his schooling, he had to earn money, and did so by selling his works and exhibiting his paintings at the Royal Academy Exhibition. The young artist was inspired by many painters such as Claude Lorrain, Richard Wilson, and Sir. Joshua Reynolds. In 1791, he went on his first sketching tour where he visited on his own multiple sceneries in the South of England, the Midlands, the North of England, and the Lake District. In 1796, his first oil painting “Fisherman at Sea” was exhibited at the Academy. The overwhelming power of nature depicted in this particular work is a key theme of the Sublime. The vigor of the moonlight contrasts with the delicate vulnerability of the flickering lantern, emphasizing nature’s power over mankind and the fishermen’s fate in particular. In the following years, the works he painted and exhibited related to history, literature and myth, and challenged the styles of the Old Masters. He made rapid advances in his technique going from accurate topographical paintings to more abstract ones by opting for a loose brushwork and vibrant colouring. At first, he captured the everyday life of cities, ports and the countryside, depicting the working and leisure activities of ordinary men and women. By doing so, he demonstrated his affection for humanity, but also humanity’s vulnerability amid the turbulent nature of the world. One of Turner's unique qualities was that he did not attempt to reproduce what he saw, but rather he tried to paint what he felt about a scene. Particularly in his later life, Turner painted many pictures depicting the effects of the following elements: wind, rain, snow, sea, and storms. In “Snow Storm Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth”, a steamboat struggles to stay afloat in the heart of the whirlwind. The swirling shapes, shifting colours, and blurry marks make it seem as if we’re looking directly into a storm. As greatly portrayed in Mr.Turner, the artist came up with this image while he was lashed to the mast of a ship during an actual storm at sea. Such ambitious measure proves how much he wanted his art to show the truth, and he was willing to risk his life to reveal it. In comparison, fellow contemporaries such as rival John Constable, were less eccentric than Turner, too focused on showcasing the beauty and power of Nature, rather than striving to express spirituality of the world. Some of them did not go beyond England, and portrayed solely typical British countryside sceneries. Other painters were more keen on doing portraits than landscapes. Although Turner was a natural for marine art, he experimented by varying the subjects of his paintings, for example he was interested in portraying machines, technologies, and industries: all part of the Industrial Revolution. He went on various trips around Europe and journeyed in Italy, “the ultimate goal for many English romantics of the time” (J.M.W. Turner). The Italian landscape was of great inspiration for him. There, he combined the Classical architecture of Italy and its dreamy sceneries with historical and mythical events. His visit to Italy had also dramatic consequences for his palette; he adopted a new range of vibrant yellows, blues and reds. His desire to experiment with materials and fleeting colors, and his passion to achieve an effect rather than care for the finished work did not help to preserve his paintings. The significance of light was to Turner “the emanation of God's spirit” (Shanes 4). This was why he refined the subject matter of his later paintings by leaving out solid objects and detail, concentrating on the play of light on water, the radiance of skies and fires. His inclination towards a more impressionist style was not appreciated by his contemporaries who preferred his former paintings in the classical tradition and his luminous topographical watercolours. His later paintings were indeed considered as unfinished and aberrant as elements in his works were distorted, melting away in the misty background. Even in his old days, Turner continued to show a few works every year at the Academy, but gradually he began to lose the physical ability necessary for painting. He eventually died in 1851 in his mistress’s house in Chelsea where he uttered his last words: “The Sun is God”. As a painter, he depended on the sun to reveal colour and the beauty of nature. His veneration for it might have been as simple as that. In a way, the chaotic forces displayed in his paintings might also relate to a religious perspective, but regarding Turner’s desolate childhood one cannot simply ignore the fact that the loss of his mother and younger sister may have impacted his artistic view. From Romanticism to pre-Impressionism, watercolours to oils, architectural details to agitated seascapes, there is something in Turner’s work for everyone. Turner was most decidedly not just a landscape and marine artist; equally he was a painter of mankind. Extremely secretive of his personal life, Turner carried his emotions, especially after his father’s death which caused his depression. After all, his father was an important figure in his life as he was his main motivator and assistant. Turner’s paintings portrayed a sense of hope amid the turbulence of Nature. They dealt with the struggle of man, and with life itself. His legacy is now spread around wide audiences against his wish. However, there are still a few pictures that are housed at the Tate Gallery, enabling visitors to gaze at the chaotic yet radiant atmosphere of Turner’s paintings.

Works Cited J.M.W. Turner. Dir. Carroll Moore. Narr. Jeremy Irons. Microcinema International, 2007. Documentary.
Mr. Turner. Dir. Mike Leigh. Perf. Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Paul Jesson, and Marion Bailey. Entertainment One, 2014. Film Turner, Joseph Mallord William. Fisherman at Sea. 1796. Tate Gallery, London. Tate Gallery. Web. 1 April 2015. Turner, Joseph Mallord William. Snow Storm Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth. 1842. Tate Gallery, London. Tate Gallery. Web. 3 April 2015. Shanes, Eric. “A Turner Biography.” The Turner Society. [PDF file].…...

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