There is pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is rapture in the lovely shore,
There is society where none intrudes, by the deep sea,
And music in its roar, I love not Man the less, but Nature more.
For most of us nature is a mystery, a puzzle to solve or a book to be interpret but for Joseph Mallord William Turner, the purpose of nature was quite clear - to pose challenges, to keep men on their toes. But at the same time, he taught humanity to rise and face these challenges. His landscapes were representations of his idea and vision of nature. In fact, his art was about what he saw and not what he knew. He saw himself as a successful man and painted himself as such.
Self Portrait 1799
Turner (April 23, 1775- December 19, 1851) was an English Romantic landscape painter. His studies of light, color and atmosphere were paramount and gave the coming generations, a new kind of art. Today, J.M.W. Turner is one of the most celebrated artist of the 19th century. His legacy in the art world is such that the prestigious annual Turner Prize art award is named after him. He recently gained popularity outside art circles with the release of the movie 'Mr Turner', which has raked up awards around the globe and is nominated for 4 Oscars right now. Timothy Spall (best known to audiences as Wormtail in the “Harry Potter" series) plays the role of the eccentric artist.
Young Talent and Ambition
J.M.W. Turner was a naturally gifted talent and he was aware of it as his artworks were apreciated for his skill from an early age. Perhaps the self-belief he gained is what allowed him to paint with a distinct style, without fear of ridicule. He was ambitious throughout his life. He took admission in the Royal Academy as a scholarship student and was upwardly mobile from then on. At the age of 21 when most artists are still perfecting their brushwork, he exhibited his first oil painting at Royal Academy - “Fishermen at Sea” (1796).
The painting depicts the moonlight scene. A contemporary critic called this painting a work of “an original mind”.
Fishermen at sea
His interest in seas is perhaps related to his childhood. As a child, Turner went to live with his uncle at Brentford, Middlesex where he encountered river Thames for the first time. His fascination for river, sea and bridges must have sprung at this moment. We all live in the world of oppositions. Calmness and turbulence cannot go hand in hand but in the natural world, exceptions are expected. Standing by the riverside, we feel calm and composed but at the same time could feel goosebumps on our skin as we witness the vastness of the sea. Turner might have felt the same.Turner was fascinated by these aspect of nature which showed the fragility of human life, a common romantic theme especially found in the poems of Wordsworth and the works of Caspar David Friedrich.
With time, Turner’s paintings became increasingly atmospheric. In his paintings such as “Frosty Morning” (1813) and “Scarlet Sunset”, he treated light in different ways. They are entirely based on the effects of light. In “Sunset”, the city behind has lost its visibility. It has been covered by the changing color of sky. In “Frosty Morning” we can see the pastoral scene, showing animals in nature’s lap. He once said, “Light is therefore, color”.
Turner used to keep a sketchbook with him. He had many of them in which he recorded his observation of changes in eclipse, shapes of clouds and wind. Interestingly, during 19th century, Luke Howard presented his Study and understanding of clouds shapes which transformed the field of meteorology and Turner read about it in artist manuals which influenced him.
The idea of "Sublime"
He and many Romantic writers and painters of his time were influenced by the idea of “Sublime”. The term best understood as representing “nature as terrifying and intimidating”. His painting “The Shipwreck” portrayed this idea. It is rumored that he once strapped himself to the mast of the ship to feel the effects of the sea and paint a storm.
The Slave Ship
The Burning of the Houses of Lords
His landscape were an imitation of Claude Lorrain’s landscape paintings. Lorrain painted landscape inhabited by mythical characters- God and nymphs. Turner used them to paint the Industrial Revolution of 19th century Britain. One such painting was “Crossing the Brook” (1815). Unlike the mythical past in Claude’s work, this painting shows Devon of 1815 with waterwheel, the Lake Old Mine. Also, in the middle he includes the scene of modern industries.
Crossing the Brook
Turner’s name today, conjures up the images of skies and wild sea. But he wasn’t a conventional landscape painter who captured only the poetic beauty of nature. Turner also captured the moments of change in the scientific world. Turner knew about Faraday’s discovery of magnetic field and its presence in nature. He was deeply influenced and fascinated by the visual manifestations of scientific discovery. He tried to draw them the way he witnessed them. As a result, he gave the world a visual language. Turner paintings became less figurative because more than figures, it was a tussle between the man and nature which he was interested in. His painting “Steamboat at the Harbors Mouth” was a visual portrayal of the discovery of magnetic field. The mast of the boat is leaned on one side as if the hidden forces of the nature are pulling it inside.
Steamboat at the Harbors Mouth
J.M.W.Turner paintings are not merely paintings, but a witness to change. His earlier painting appears to show the enormity of nature over fragility of human life but the painting he drew in his later life, indicated otherwise.“The Fighting Temeraire” is a national painting. The coming times made people anxious but what they didn’t wanted to be unhappy about it. The lost glory could be remembered in the memories but something was on which people could rely. The relationship between The Temeraire and The steamship in the painting shows the Briton’s wish. The tugboat though small is carrying the battleship to its end. Steamships in Turner’s paintings are not wrecked, they are the objects to hold on. According to some critics, the clanking industrial bustle is indicated by the smoke coming out of the tugboat.
The Fighting Temeraire
Another painting, “Bell Rock Lighthouse” shows Turner’s idea of Sublime. Shipwrecks were common and there were no measures to save dying people. Every structure would end in pieces in front of nature’s wrath. But the way the lighthouse was constructed, it was a response to nature that human can withstand the challenges and problems posed by it. This painting celebrates human potential.
Bell Rock Lighthouse
Turner knew Faraday personally. He discussed with Faraday the pigment recipes. He used fiery red and chrome yellow, the colors of industry to paint flame and smoke. The atmosphere he created was of 24 hours productive work. The worked never stopped. In his paintings human subject is not clear because they are masses, working continuously to give Britain a better Future. In his painting, “Rain, Steam and Speed”, Britain has now turned into an Industrial country. The atmosphere is filled with the factory smoke, soil, and filth. Amidst all this, a train is approaching. A new era is beginning. Some close observer has seen a shadow of Hare in the track. This suggest that human has been successful to invent and create something which could surpass the nature in speed and time.
Rain,Steam and Speed
Turner painted ahead of his times. He himself being a socially mobile individual knew the value of human potential. He believed in the creative powers of human beings. The painting above neither portrays the present nor the future.Everything is hidden in the dust. The progress as symbolized by the train, is approaching. What should we do- welcome it or question its purpose?
Turner would say, “Patience can only give correct answers.”
If art is about expressing what you feel, Turner expressed his anxieties and belief in the humans potential the way he felt. Art helps people relate to their surroundings and when the whole Britain was being mechanized, how could Turner just sit and paint the natural beauty of countryside which can only give us a pleasure and not the manmade world which was going to change the world forever.
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