Saturday, April 23, 2016

Encountering the Turnerian Sublime

            When viewers encounter Joseph Mallord William Turner’s artworks, they undergo an aesthetic experience of the sublime. One of Turner’s famous admirers—Ruskin defines sublimity as “another word for the effect of greatness upon the feelings—greatness, whether of matter, space, power, virtue, or beauty.”1 Turner expresses this very effect of eminence of nature over man. His maneuver of light, air, and space is shown in his use of color, brushwork, and objects.

               An author and curator of the Tate Gallery—Andrew Wilton suggests Turner’s use of objects like sunsets—“allow the artist a good deal of expressive freedom in inventing and developing the language of reality.” Turner constantly references the objects to human experience which is the only means of approaching them. Wilton writes that Turner recognized “the need for a new and broader realism that would accurately describe phenomena of greater emotional power than any that had been painted in the past: a realism that would open up the imagination to deeper insights into the real world.” 2 He further talks about how the old symbolisms of the objects take on a fresh and personal meaning, “a significance which relates neither to a hero nor to the common man, but to the artist himself, who is both.”2

               Norman Bryson—an art history professor of the University of California—suggests that Turner is using narratives and sublime emotion. He states that Turner reduced presentation of objects—usually architecture, the human figure, the sea, sky—that is of central importance to him. He believes Turner used tone, registers of information, size, color and other attributes to use glyptic form rather than abstraction in his painting. He calls him a “master of information” on how he uses enhancement to “cause the scales of information to move,” and yet make it recognizable for the viewers. 3

          Turner’s last words were, ‘the sun is god.’ Turner invites the viewers to experience feeling the grandeur effects and power of light through his paintings.


1John Ruskin, Modern Painters, book I (section II, chapter3) .1843

2Andrew Wilton, Turner and the Sublime, University of Chicago Press. 1980. 101-102

3`Norman Bryson, “Enhancement and Displacement in Turner”.(Huntington Library Quarterly, 49). University of California Press. 63-65, 1986.

J.M.W. Turner, Lake of Zug, 1843 

Watercolor over graphite, 11 ¾ x 18 3/8 in. (29.8 x 46.6 cm), The MET Museum, 59.120


 To the casual eye, viewers may fail to notice how this painting feels more like a memory of a place rather than a representation. Men, women, children at work and play populate a calming azure lake that is nestled in the middle of a mountain landscape. The hazy mountains, a glistening sunrise, and a pale sky create a sense of deep inviting place. People are painted in a color that is very similar to the land—making them appear as if they were an extension of the landscape. The mountain, sky, and lake look like they are connected because of how the colors meet and blur into each other with no definable boundaries. Diluted watercolor brushstrokes of translucent colors create silky and faint qualities that establish a sense of ethereality. The viewers feel as if they can touch the air and light. The overall effect of the composition and brushwork offer a dreamlike or akin to a memory of a place once visited to the viewer. Turner’s goal is not to represent the place precisely, but provide the viewer the particular feel that comes when being at the place. 

J.M.W. Turner, Run Steam and Speed, 1844 

Oil on canvas, 36 x 48 in (91 x 121.8 cm) National Gallery

In this painting, Turner paints a man-made symbol of industrialization with nature into a tight frame. It is based on the Railway mania in England that opened up a new way of transportation—which is the railway. This is going to cause major changes around the place—and it’s coming very fast. From the vanishing point, the train races toward the viewer. There are smoke and blurred brushstrokes that give a sense of movement and speed to the train. Interestingly, everything but the horn of the train has defined lines—indicating the alarming sound of the train approaching. If carefully observed, the viewer can notice how the train is trying to burst out from the rain toward a rabbit in the middle of the railroad. This rabbit is also a symbol of speed. The painting captures the moment of tension between the train and rabbit is supposed to make the viewers uncomfortable. Will the train hit the rabbit first or will it get away? 

J.M.W. Turner, Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, 1842 

Oil on canvas, 36 x 48 in (91 x 121 cm) Tate Gallery 

With this painting, Turner claims that it is a vivid representation of a personal experience during his journey. He invites the viewer to this experience. The struggle shown in the painting is a steam boat trying to fight against the storm. The swirling storm, wind, or wave is meant to evoke feelings of anxiety, terror, and uneasiness toward the viewer. The curve of the wave makes it seem like there’s no escape available. 

J.M.W. Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 1834-1835 

Oil on canvas, 36.3 x 48.5 in (92.1 x 123.2 cm) National Gallery 

 Turner witnessed the house of parliament burning down in October 16th 1834. He records and captures this historical and dramatical moment. The bright fire is taking much of the space and people watching from afar. There’s nothing they can do to stop the fire from burning—so they are helplessly watching. Nature’s dominance as well as the need for political reform is symbolized in the painting. 

J.M.W. Turner, Death on a Pale Horse, 1825-1830 

Oil on canvas, 24”x 30” National Gallery 

Turner depicts Death written in the Book of Revelation as last of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The scene is unexpected—out of awareness. The pale horse belongs to Death not some angelic spirit. Death is not sitting upright—he is twisted. And Death’s horse is not black. Like this death comes to the viewer unexpectedly. It is almost haunting to see how his skeletal fingers are reaching to grab something—possibly the viewer. This was drawn after the death of Turner’s father. 

J.M.W. Turner, War—The Exile and the Rock Limpet, 1842 

Oil on canvas, (79 x79cm) Tate Gallery 

In this painting, Turner depicts Napoleon Bonaparte sent into exile in St. Helena. There is a vibrant sunset surrounding him. He pauses to stare at a limpet crossing in the middle of the sunset. What could he be thinking? Futility. He had lost everything—and yet this small creature has everything in his shell. The creature can choose to live wherever it desires and he can’t. The overall choice of red palette suggests a sense of trauma, blood, and chaos. 


Bryson, Norman. “Enhancement and Displacement in Turner”. Huntington Library Quarterly, 49 (1). University of California Press. 45-65, 1986.of Chicago Press. 1981.

Ruskin John, and Dinah Birch. Selected Writings. Oxford University Press. 2004.

Wilton, Andrew. Turner and the Sublime. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1981.

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