Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Explosive Qualities of Light and its Representation: A Study of J. M. W. Turner

J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851) is a romantic, landscape painter working in England and abroad primarily in the 19th century. A large catalogue of paintings and sketches provide a sort of travel itinerary for the life and work of Turner as he pursues the sublime in sites of classical and historical significance. Turner was renowned for his depictions of seascapes and landscapes where he would display an in depth understanding of the interaction of light and matter. He entreats his viewers with his interpretation of the extracted essence of a scene. He calls his audience into stirring contemplation in glassy harbors, where meandering ships seem to be dancing with their luminous reflections as with partners in a timeless waltz. Turner is also willing to sound the trumpet in calling us to sobering confrontation with our finitude as he forces us to look on roaring, cavernous seas where teetering ships are surrounded by walls of dark, ominous clouds. In the outpouring of the contrasts of light one experiences a deja vu or a wave of nostalgia, perhaps a deep yearning or an excitement of the imagination as all the dreams of day and of night seem to alight and take root in the multitude of surreal, intuitional narratives that blow uncheck through the heart and mind of the viewer.
Turner’s viewing and painting experiences and abilities would have been influenced by a combination of events. First, the most powerful volcanic blast in recorded history[1] took place in 1816 at Mount Tambora. The eruption would heap particles high in the atmosphere, which resulted in strikingly bold views in the skies of Europe. This can be observed in not only Turner’s works but also that of many other avid land and sea painters of the time. Also the timely availability of several new pigments: chrome yellow, emerald green, and ultramarine would lend greater possibility and vividness to the scenes. These pigments were all considered to be in use by Turner by 1828 with a Chinese white emerging in 1935.[2]
Let's turn now to the exploration of Turner’s progressive portrayal of the qualities of light that was brought about, in part, by natural and technological development.

[1] The New York Times
[2] Fischer & Gov.

Title: A First Rate Taking in Stores
Date: 1818
Medium: Graphite and watercolour heightened with white on paper
Dimensions: 286 x 397 mm
Collection: Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford, England

An early painting of Turner’s, uncharacteristically exudes a paler palette for the sea and sky while displaying an emphasis on the man-made. Here, the colors used could be due to the role that Turner willed the sea and sky to play. Even though it seems clear that his design placed them in the background, this dullness of color could also be, in part, due to the fact that Turner had not yet integrated all of the new pigments into his work. The other unexpected quality that helps to date this work is the amount of space and the emphasis of power the ships receive. The perspective of the viewer is daunting, as it is quite dangerous to be looking into the broadside cannons of a man o’ war. It is not typical of Turner, in the canon of his later works, to lend such prominence or recognition to an imposing characteristic of something man-made over that which could be considered natural or primal.

Title: A Storm (Shipwreck)
Date: 1823
Medium: Watercolour on paper
Dimensions: 434 x 632 mm
Collection: The British Museum

Ships, overflowing with people, appear seconds away from being battered against the rocks by huge swells of furious water. The ocean drives relentlessly, sweeping, swirling and pounding. These dark colors give way to feelings of panic and horror. A nightmare sequence seems to unfold as the meagerness of the situation is further dimmed by the mocking curtain of supercharged clouds. Turner is embracing the ferocity of the storm and still working within his limited palette. He is finding his niche in utilizing the color contrast to underscore what he perceives as the raw power of nature.

Title: Ulysses deriding Polyphemus - Homer's Odyssey
Date: 1829
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 132.5 x 203 cm
Collection: The National Gallery UK

The ancient text of Homer is recast in the strokes of Turner. This historical painting is considered a landmark in Turner’s progressive experimentation with light. Here he uses, what will be for him, transitional subject matter while he emphasizes, most acutely, the radiant sunrise. The brilliance and beauty of the light is exquisite and surreal. This work represents a time when Turner had access to the additional color pigments: chrome yellow, emerald green, and ultramarine. A sunrise such as this would have been observable in Europe as a result of the eruption of Mount Tambora. This painting provides a marvelous exhibition of the enlarged spectrum of color and it would also be a glimpse of an extraordinary and rare natural phenomenon that lit the morning sky anew with a blaze of vibrant shafts of gold.

Title: Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute
Date: 1835
Medium: Oil on Canvas
Dimensions: 91.4 x 122.2 cm
Collection: The Met
Ascension Number: 99.31

Turner’s interpretation of the Venetian waterline appears capable of hosting the entire scene by reflecting the sky, the architecture, and the ships. His colors, including the effective use of the Chinese white pigment, are used to a terribly calming effect. He envelops the scene in soft and inviting atmosphere. The wonder of the sky and the water bound vessels framed within the palace-like structures is like a lullaby whispering sweet dreams of infinite possibility. The sky is filled with such deep and airy colors while the water is grounded in an earthy mix of colors.In creating this piece, Turner investigates his consolidation of perspective and his interlinking of color contrasts to elicit an emotional response from the viewer.

Title: Flint Castle (1838)
Date: 1838
Medium: Watercolour on paper
Dimensions: Unknown
Collection: Private

What a new day this is. Turner sets the old and the new side by side as the brightness of the yellows and oranges conquer the grey light of morning clouds. This is contrasted by the unyielding dark of the ancient-looking fortress. However, overwhelmingly Turner’s palette communicates the bursting emotions of newness, freshness, and briskness. Turner is able to capture such a color explosion of shades and hues that is neither confined to the heavens nor restrained by the seas with his well developed us of an enlarged and enabled array of pigments. The atmospheric particles from the volcanic eruption magnify the glory of the sky, rebounded by the water, which seems to create a sphere of golden light that is both: receding and protruding, convex and concave, an invitation and a greeting.

Title: The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838
Date: 1839
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 90.7 x 121.6 cm
Collection: The National Gallery UK

The legendary Temeraire heads for the scrapyard of Sheerness[3]. A red sun christens the destruction of the war hero. It is remarkable to think that such intense and vigorous light, though seemingly otherworldly, was not an exaggeration but was inspired by the effects of Mount Tambora. Turner expresses his resignation and indignation with a saturated palette, now very much refined. He makes it so that the sun seems to lament in a woeful decline. Turner invites the sky and the sea to join in the dirge by the dismal suffusion of red, orange, and yellow. Turner has mastered the concentration of pigments and the translucent contrasts of light. He tosses the potent colors in the approaching path of the great ship. Though it seems to catch the hull of the steamship, the naval vessel remains untouched as it noble bow points resolutely toward the impending dismemberment.

[3] The Fighting Temeraire

Works Cited
A Volcanic Eruption That Reverberates 200 Years Later - The New York Times. Retrieved from
Fischer, M., & Government of South Australia. Turner from the Tate the Making of a Master. Retrieved from

Joseph Mallord William Turner | The Fighting Temeraire | NG524 | National Gallery, London. (n.d.). Retrieved from

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