This video is a commentary on a selection of paintings by William Turner.
William Turner travelled a lot, both in and out of England. Perhaps, that’s why his paintings are so eclectic.
Let’s start with Fishermen at Sea, the first oil painting by Turner. It’s a nocturnal subject, with strange shapes in the background. They are rocks called the needles off the Isle of Wight. In the moonlight, a fisherman’s boat can be seen, and a second boat on the right is almost invisible. The darkness is enhanced with a chiaroscuro effect. There are many highlights of white paint, suggesting the shimmering reflection of the light on the water. Symbolically, the frail boat struggling against the rough sea could stand for human condition, reason struggling against passions, freedom struggling against destiny. The painting is therefore a romantic metaphor of life.
Some sixteen years later, Turner embarked on a very ambitious painting based on the Greek legend of Dido building Carthage. It’s amazing to realise that the same artist made these two very different paintings. In this painting, Turner paid a tribute to the French artist Claude Lorrain, who painted Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba. And indeed the two canvases have a similar layout. Turner’s version is very much in keeping with the precepts of Joshua Reynolds, the first president of the Royal Academy, who was in favour of History paintings which imitate the Italian grand style. Turner respects Reynolds’ aesthetic ideals of symmetry, perspective, and sfumato effects in the background. It produces a sense of theatricality. But Turner’s touch is visible in this painting, it’s the powerful yellow sunlight which suffuses the whole canvas, characteristic of Turner’s style.
We find this fiery atmosphere in many different paintings by Turner. In the Fighting Temeraire, for instance, made in 1838. This seascape illustrates the last trip of a formerly glorious military sail ship, the Temeraire, which had fought at Trafalgar. She is now powerless, and she is being towed by a dark and gloomy steamboat to the demolition yard. She rather looks like the ghost of a ship, almost visually fading away in the yellow sunset. She symbolises the end of an era, whereas the towboat heralds the industrial times.
Turner’s yellow sunlight is best known in his images of Italy. His first visit to Italy was in 1819, when he was 44. When he visited the city of Venice, he actually fell in love with it.
This is San Giorgio Maggiore, a watercolour painting made in 1819. Turner often used watercolour to convey the hazy atmosphere over the lagoon. The technique allows limpid and transparent effects. Watercolour became even more popular thanks to Turner.
He also made several oil paintings of Venice, like the Grand Canal. It features a very picturesque and colourful scene on the canal. Very delicate reflections of light on the water create a brilliance which makes us think of watercolour paintings.
Toward the end of his life, Turner’s obsession for light and colour led him to an aesthetic evolution. It is as if forms gradually faded out and gave way to pure light. Examples of this evolution are his paintings of the Houses of Parliament on Fire. In this one painting, the noble architecture of the building is destroyed by the huge fire. Turner painted not only a historic event, but also a vision of the sublime: the dissolution of form.
Many late paintings illustrate Turner’s vanguard aesthetics in which forms dissolve into light. He often resorted to the pattern of a vortex in order to destroy classical perspective. Some people actually thought he had started to become blind.
This is Snowstorm, Steamboat off a Harbour’s mouth, 1842. The comparison with Fishermen at Sea made in his early career is striking. The boat is in the centre of the vortex, with powerful winds and waves swirling all around, and we cannot distinguish the skyline any more. But the whole image is gloomier than most of Turner’s paintings, because here the sunlight has disappeared.
I hope this video helped you to understand and appreciate the variety of Turner’s paintings.