Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was a British painter, famous for his landscapes and, especially, his dramatic seascapes. His paintings reflect a British Romantic interest in the awe-inspiring power of nature—the Sublime. During the time of Turner’s artistic career, the Industrial Revolution bolstered the popular idea of mankind’s unique power manifested in technological advancement that had the potential to conquer and subdue the natural world. This rise of man’s power fed the Romantics’ fascination in and juxtaposition of modern civilization and the raw power of nature. Many of Turner’s works have been considered to have offered his viewers a world in which nature was haphazard and often in conflict with humanity.
This juxtaposition of man and nature develops over the course of Turner’s painting career. The Sublime is depicted in his landscape paintings with a uniting motif. Early in his career, the Sublime is depicted as dark, ominous storm clouds. These evolve into a characteristic streak of dark cloud in conflict with man during the middle of Turner’s career. Finally, towards the end of his career, he embodies the Sublime into similarly dark and ominous forms. Constant throughout this artistic development is Turner’s juxtaposition of man and the Sublime.
J.M.W. Turner, The Shipwreck, c. 1805, oil on canvas, Tate Modern
One of Turner’s earliest seascapes, The Shipwreck is one of the artist’s first of many depictions of violent encounters between man and nature at sea. The light of the men’s sail stands in stark contrast with the all-consuming storm clouds. Their dark, ominous presence overwhelm the composition with their reflection in the sea water.
This painting, along with a number of Turner’s other early seascapes, such as Dutch Boats in a Gale and The Wreck of a Transport Ship, feature this dark, looming presence of the Sublime depicted as storm clouds. This scene, along with the others, presents the viewer with the aftermath of a violent encounter with nature. The viewer, in union with the sailors in the paintings, is humbled by the power of the Sublime.
J.M.W. Turner, Snow Storm, Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps, c. 1812, oil on canvas, Tate Modern
In this landscape, Turner’s dark, all-consuming storm clouds have evolved into a violent, energized streak of a cloud. This dark force looms over Hannibal and his men, poised to strike. The scale of the streak, relative to the men, communicates the power of this storm. The conflict is emphasized by the contrast between the dark value of the streak with the lighter value of the sky and land near the men. However, the darkness is already overcoming the men as it darkens the sun. The viewer knows how this encounter will end.
This dramatic scene juxtaposes man and nature, with explicit and implicit emphasis on the power of the Sublime. Explicitly, the scale and ominous quality of the streak communicate its intensity. Implicitly, the action is depicted prior to the climax of the conflict, but the overwhelming force that guarantees the victory of the Sublime is foreshadowed.
J.M.W. Turner, Shipwreck off Hastings, c. 1825, watercolor on paper, National Gallery of Ireland
Turner became famous for his watercolor seascapes. In this seascape, the remnants of a marine vessel are seen in shambles after a shipwreck. The tail end of a sea storm is receding away with the last of the clouds lingering in the left of the painting. Their dark, looming quality allude to Turner’s past depictions of the Sublime. Compositionally, in regard to the contrast of light and dark and the areas they occupy, this painting echoes Snow Storm. However, instead of just before the climax, the aftermath of a conflict is displayed. Man has been defeated. Who is responsible? None other than the Sublime, seen in the lingering, yet looming mass of dark cloud.
J.M.W. Turner, Shade and Darkness, the Evening of the Deluge, 1843, oil on canvas, Tate Modern
In this landscape, Turner depicts the biblical subject of the Deluge, or the flood narrative. By alluding to this event, the artist references power so great that it can overtake nearly the entirety of mankind. This power is depicted by Turner’s characteristic streak, representing the great storm. In this way, the artist associates the Sublime with the one who has total control over the forces of nature—God. Through this scene, the artist encourages the viewer to be humbled in the face of such majestic power.
J.M.W. Turner, Sunrise with Sea Monsters, c. 1845, oil on canvas, Tate Modern
In connection to their interest in the Sublime, Romantics were fascinated by mysterious, powerful forces in nature. Huge sea creatures baited their imagination. Correlating with the 19th century British interest in whaling, beasts of the sea were awe-inspiring examples of the power of nature, of the Sublime.
The viewer will find no storm clouds or characteristic streaks in this seascape. However, Turner still depicts the Sublime, but in a new way. In this painting, the Sublime is embodied by the sea monsters. These monsters, associated with power and agency, are depicted with the darkest hues in the entire painting. In this way, they still reference the dark, looming Sublime of Turner’s earlier landscapes.
J.M.W. Turner, Whalers, c. 1845, oil on canvas, The Met 96.29
Towards the end of his painting career, Turner paints this dramatic seascape conflict between predator and prey. The whalers have struck the great beast, but have been blasted away in shambles after the whale has retaliated. Turner captures this violent encounter with just a glimpse into the drama as the whalers are being jettisoned out of their fishing boats.
As he did in Sunrise with Sea Monsters, Turner embodies the Sublime in the dark mass of the whale. As in his Snow Storm and Shipwreck off Hastings, the Sublime is held in stark contrast with the white sails of the whalers’ ship. The viewer may even recognize a subtle streak in the splash of water opposite the whale. This juxtaposition of man and the Sublime presents the viewer with a humbling and awe-inspiring scene of man’s encounter with the power and force of nature.