Many of the most famous paintings by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) were created during the years Britain and Napoleonic France were battling. Turner paintings can be broadly divided into two groups:
- realistic, topographical paintings designed to convey information, and
- paintings in which Turner altered details to convey his opinions of current events, history, politics and nature.
Joseph Mallord William Turner. Self-Portrait, ca. 1799. Oil on canvas, approximately 29" by 23". Tate, London.
Born in Covent Gardens, London, where his father was a wigmaker and barber, Turner became a student at the Royal Academy Schools when he was just 14 years old. There, he studied works by established painters like Claude Lorrain and emulated his style, becoming a master of Romantic landscape paintings. By the age of 27, Turner was a full academician.
And perhaps a bit quirky. Turner painted in secrecy in his studio, using an assumed name and refusing to teach any pupils. (1)
Joseph Mallord William Turner, known as JMW Turner, was a painter of diverse subjects and moods who often depicted current events; deemed "the painter of light", Turner was the first painter to jettison light brown priming in favor of pure white (2), which accentuated the brilliance of his colors.
His skill in handling light is shown in one of Turner's most famous paintings, The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to be Broken Up, 1838.
All Britons knew the HMS Temeraire because she was instrumental in the Battle of Trafalgar between British and French fleets: on 21 October 1805, Admiral Nelson, the British commander, trounced the invading French fleet despite its six ship advantage.
Joseph Mallord William Turner. The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to be Broken Up, 1838. Oil on canvas, 35 1/4" by 48". National Gallery, London.
Tragically, this national hero died from a gunshot wound aboard the Victory, the Temeraire's sister ship.
The Temeraire thus insured Britain's naval dominance for another century. According to contemporary records, the Temeraire not only decoyed French fire away from Admiral Nelson and Victory but also captured two French ships -- with the death of Nelson, the Temeraire was the hero of Trafalgar.
Painted thirty-three years after this victory, The Fighting Temeraire doesn't only commemorate a pivotal battle. It also records repercussions of the Industrial Revolution which, by 1838, had rendered such sailing ships irrelevant. Pulled by a steam-driven paddle boat from the British town of Sheerness to Rotherhithe, the Temeraire is headed to a scrap yard.
Curiously, though, the Temeraire is travelling east and away from the sunset, although Rotherhithe is actually west of Sheerness.
Turner has shifted from creating a historically accurate painting to one in which he paints his opinion: the parallel between the setting sun and the demise of the Temeraire is inescapable. Perhaps, too, Turner presages the end of Britain's global dominance that was historically secured by its naval prowess.
Why do you suppose Turner chose not to show the Temeraire sailing toward the sunset, as was historically true?
1. Frederick Hartt. A History of Painting: Art. Sculpture. Architecture. (Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, 1993). 4th Edition, 897.
2. Hartt 897.