List Headline Image
Updated by Graeme Thomson on Nov 07, 2014
Headline for J.M.W. Turner: 10 Essential Paintings
 REPORT
10 items   2 followers   0 votes   265 views

J.M.W. Turner: 10 Essential Paintings

With the release of Mike Leigh's Mr Turner starring Timothy Spall, here are 10 essential works by Turner that you need to know about.

2

The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons

The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons
  1. Oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia.

"Shortly before 7 o'clock last night the inhabitants of Westminster, and of the districts on the opposite bank of the river, were thrown into the utmost confusion and alarm by the sudden breaking out of one of the most terrific conflagrations that has been witnessed for many years past....The Houses of the Lords and Commons and the adjacent buildings were on fire."

So wrote the London Times on October 17, 1834. Along with thousands of Londoners, Turner witnessed the event. The quick sketches he made at the scene became the basis for the painting.

3

Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps

Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps
  1. Oil on canvas, Tate Gallery, London.

Dominated by the huge, swirling vortex of black storm clouds and snow that is about to engulf Hannibal’s army, the sheer force of nature dwarfs humanity. In addition to the danger posed by nature, in the left foreground the army’s stragglers are being attacked and killed by local tribesmen. Turner’s choice of subject matter, Hannibal, reflects his personal interest in the historic struggles of Rome and Carthage, and the then ongoing struggle between Britain and France in the Napoleonic Wars. And the two are interconnected: for Turner Carthage and Rome were a metaphor for France and Britain; and the defeat of Hannibal the defeat of Napoleon.

4

Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus

Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus
  1. Oil on canvas, National Gallery, London.

A scene from Homer’s Odyssey in which Ulysses is escaping from the man-eating, one-eyed giant Cyclops, Polyphemus, having first succeeded in blinding him. Although a classical subject, Turner achieves a vortex of movement effect by constantly switching the viewer’s focus: first from Ulysses’ ship, to the setting sun, to sails of the other ship, to the rock formations, then upwards to clouds and mist and Polyphemus almost blending into the background in the top left, and then down past Ulysses standing in the stern of the boat, and on to the mouth of the Cyclops’ cave.

It’s worth noting that Ulysses’ derision of Polyphemus was his undoing: Polyphemus asks to know the name of the person who blinded him; Ulysses boastfully obliges. Thus, Polyphemus is able to call down revenge from his divine father upon Ulysses.

5

Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On)

Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On)
  1. Oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Inspired by an historical event recounted in Thomas Clarkson’s book, “The History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade” (published, 1783), in which the captain of a slave ship, because his insurance company would only pay for slaves lost at sea as opposed to those who died en route, ordered the dead and dying slaves to be thrown overboard as a storm approached. The human cruelty is exemplified by the red and gold flashes of light cast by the setting sun, the surging anger of the wind-tossed sea, and the helplessness of the manacled hands reaching out of the water in supplication. As with so much of Turner’s imagery, the metal of the manacles stands as visual metaphor for the Industrial Revolution. The slave ship has struck its rigging – sensible enough in the face of a coming typhoon, but also a symbolizes the ship’s impotence in the face of the storm.

6

The Grand Canal, Venice

The Grand Canal, Venice
  1. Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

As an expression of Turner’s beliefs of the importance of emotional impression over factual realism, this work is a quiet, yet telling example. That’s because this “view” of the Grand Canal in Venice isn’t a view that anyone could actually experience. The reason is that the left hand bank of the canal depicts a view of Venice as seen from the Church of Santa Maria della Slute; the view on the right bank, however, is seen from a position on the opposite side of the canal and about 100 metres further back along the canal. In addition, the tower in the left hand background – the campanile of San Marco – is considerably taller than in reality.

7

Rain, Steam and Speed - The Great Western Railway

Rain, Steam and Speed - The Great Western Railway
  1. Oil on canvas, National Gallery, London.

Like a Romantic precursor of Impressionism, water, air, clouds, and land all swirl together as the speeding train – a harsh, black, iron symbol of the Industrial Revolution – tears its way through nature like some warlike creature of fire and smoke. The metaphor of industrialization destroying nature is made even clearer by the fact that, also on the railway bridge and only a short way ahead of the pursuing train, a hare is racing for its life.

8

Dutch Boats in a Gale

Dutch Boats in a Gale
  1. Oil on Canvas, Tate Gallery, London.

The churning swell of the waves, the sky split between the retreating sunshine and the dark, swooping storm clouds, and the perspective of the viewer being placed actually within the troughs of the waves all combine to give this work a sense of urgency, movement, and thrust; and to make it seem almost audible.

9

Fishing Boats with Hucksters Bargaining for Fish

Fishing Boats with Hucksters Bargaining for Fish
  1. Oil on Canvas, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago.

Although the theme and composition of this work is not entirely dissimilar to his Dutch Boats in a Gale – rolling seas, surging waves, an approaching vortex of storm clouds, and a perspective such that the viewer seems to be actually within the trough of a wave – the 36 years that separates the two paintings illustrates Turner’s movement over time to a more impressionist and minimalist style, and to a focus upon the translucent opacity of light. In addition, the passage of years has increased the vitality and urgency of his work: the fishing boat being swept almost recklessly aloft on the swell. In the background, and on the horizon, are two of Turner’s recurring motifs: the fighting sail warship, its masts unrigged, and a steamship – romance and the Industrial Revolution, the old order and the new.

10

Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth

Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth
  1. Oil on canvas. Tate Gallery, London.

Battling through an elemental vortex of wind, water, clouds, and snow, a steam boat attempts to steer its way into a harbor. As with so much of Turner, this work emphasizes the futility and insignificance of mankind, and here even mankind’s powerful industrial creations, in the face of the forces of nature.

There is a (probably apocryphal) story that, in order to experience the effects of such a storm, Turner had himself tied to a ship’s mast. Even if the story isn’t true, it’s still good.

11

The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to Be Broken Up

The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to Be Broken Up
  1. Oil on canvas, National Gallery, London.

The favorite Turner painting for many people – including the artist himself. Turner never sold it, and kept it in his studio. More than thirty years after her finest moment in battle, and set against a setting sun, the once powerful, yet still majestic, wooden warship is ignominiously towed down the river Thames by an ugly, utilitarian, smoke-belching tug boat to be broken up for scrap. There is no more poignant epitaph to the passing of the age of fighting sail; and no more poignant visualization of the changing of the world’s order.

In order to grasp the enormity of this moment witnessed by Turner, it’s important to know why the Temeraire was so close to British hearts.

The H.M.S Temeraire, a second-rate, 98-gun, three-decked ship of the line, was to almost every Briton of Turner’s generation the heroine of the great naval Battle of Trafalgar (1805) between 27 ships of the Royal Navy and 33 ships of the Franco-Spanish fleet. Crashing through the Franco-Spanish line only just behind the British flagship, the H.M.S. Victory, the 98-gun Temeraire immediately engaged the Spanish, 140-gun, Santísima Trinidad (then the heaviest armed ship in the world) while simultaneously being attacked and raked by fire from two French warships, the 80-gun Neptune and the 74-gun Redoutable. As the Redoubtable turned its attentions on the Victory, the Temeraire first broadsided, then rammed the Redoubtable before lashing the French ship to its side and poured fire into it. While so engaged, the Temeraire was first attacked and raked by fire from the stern by the Spanish 112-gun Santa Ana, and then engaged on its starboard side by the 74-gun French Fougueux. Holding fire until the Fougueux was at point blank range, the Temeraire (though still lashed to and exchanging fire with the Redoubtable) fired a broadside that de-masted the French ship causing her to drift into the Temeraire. Within minutes, the Temeraire had lashed the Fougueux as it had the Redoubtable, and now found itself in the situation of being sandwiched between and battling not one but two 74-gun French ships. After, at huge cost to life, having fought both into submission, including taking the Fougueux by boarding party, and having cut both ships loose, the now vitrtually mastless and rudderless Temeraire came under attack by fresh Franco-Spanish ships arriving late to the battle. With a little help, this time, the Temeraire fought them off just as it had all other comers all day. She was eventually towed to Gibralter and refitted before later re-entering service.

At Trafalgar, no ship fought longer, harder, or against such seemingly overwhelming odds. That’s why she earned her soubriquet: The Fighting Temeraire.

As the sun sets on the bottom right, a waxing moon can be seen on the top left above and behind the ghost-like Temeraire. For Turner, the sun is setting on the age of fighting sail; the moon is waxing on the age of industrialization.