J.M.W. Turner

The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 1834-1835, Oil on Canvas, 36 x 48” approx. (91 x 122cm), Museum of Art, Philadelphia, US

“The sun is God.”

These are said to be Turner’s final words, and perhaps they were.  Whether Turner said this or not, he certainly felt it so far as his art was concerned. His big, bold, blazing canvases shout to us across whole continents, daring us to step closer and feel the heat. Turner approached light with all the passion of Isaac Newton, but tempered by the philosophical instincts of Goethe who, unlike Newton, was more interested in color as it was perceived by the individual. For Turner there was no more important exploration than the impact of light on color and its corresponding impact on the viewer.

People forget that Turner actually painted more watercolors than oils, that his oeuvre includes many more conventional landscapes and interiors. But it is the splendid bombast that we remember, his fantastical romanticism that managed to approach the abstract long before the idea of abstract expressionism had even raised its head.

The effect of light on color and its corresponding effect on human mood is still a subject of intense study and experimentation. Everything from the color of a book-jacket to the shape and hue of a vacuum cleaner is decided by designers who regard the theories of behavioral psychologists as just another wrench in their toolbox. Turner understood these things intuitively. The effects of light on color prejudice our reactions. Here are companion pieces to consider:

Shade and Darkness, the Evening of the Deluge, 1843, Oil on canvas,  (This work was stolen in 1994 (I don’t have it.)

Light and Color (Goethe’s Theory), 1843, Oil on canvas, 31 x 31” approx (78.4 x 78.4cm) Tate Gallery, London, UK

Before the Flood the world is ending and the light and color inspire a feeling of dread and doom. After the Flood, the world is emerging, Moses has begun his great work and we are entering a glorious age of the second chance, a rebirth of civilization. Without titles or explanations these two paintings would still provoke similar reactions in their viewers. That is the power of color made supernatural by the glory of light.

Turner was a very lucky artist, for he was financially independent. There were about as many critics who hated him as there were who admired him. Turner wanted all of his paintings kept together and made provisions for that in his will, but life and folks get in the way of things and it never really turned out that way, which is just as well. I would think it would be a little overwhelming to be in the midst of too many Turners at once.

Or maybe not.

The Grand Canal, Venice, Oil on canvas, unknown date, 36 x 48” approx (91 x 122cm),  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, US

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2 Responses to J.M.W. Turner

  1. Ben Karlin says:

    Wow, the internet sure is not kind to Turner, is it? There simply aren’t enough pixels and power to show his brilliance. The images are muddied and chaotic in the way I’m certain the canvases are not. Growing up I was often at the Art Institute in Chicago and when I first saw Whistler’s work I remember being surprised at how clear and bright they were. I was so used to seeing “Whistler’s Mother” in prints and it was so dull.

    • foxpudding says:

      One of the hardest things with these blogs is finding genuinely “representative” images. You’d think this would be easy, but not so much. Google Art is a great way to view art on the web, but those images don’t really transfer well.

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