Turner: Painting as an Organism of Light

Until recently, when a wholesale revision of reputations and change of taste set in in the arts, people who prided themselves on being up-to-date looked patronizingly back on Turner as an artist for adolescents. Today, when it has become fashionable for a painter to speak of himself as a romantic abstract-expressionist, Turner is coming back into favor.

I think these attitudes point up certain more obvious qualities of his work — probably faults rather than virtues. They may both be summed up in one generalization: Turner was a plebeian artist with thoroughly plebeian tastes.

Taste can be a great obstacle to the appreciation of painting, as is obvious again in Turner’s polar opposite, William Blake. It makes or breaks second-rate work, but it has little to do with the very greatest paintings, or at least painters. Cezanne, for instance, had no taste whatever. Turner’s positive passion for trees with silky silhouettes, sunsets no artist could paint, snowstorms in the Alps that beat about the head of Livy’s Hannibal, storms at sea that beset Captain Kidd, seems a little ingenuous and boyish to sensibilities corrupted by a century of black bile, alienation, and world ill.

Many people still think of Turner in terms of the reproduction which hung on the wall in high school. Before approaching him as a serious artist it is necessary to overcome a natural modern distaste for his taste. It would be easier for most people if he had painted ugly pictures. We have been taught to look through and past the ugly. Unfortunately he painted very pretty pictures indeed, prettier than Russell Flint or Leon Kroll.

Once the initial shudder of repugnance is past, it becomes apparent that Turner was not only one of the climacteric painters, a genuine original and an undying influence, but that his plastic notions, his idea of space, and the ends which he envisaged as possible in painting are peculiarly modern — modern in this case meaning something very different from the Cubist-Classicism of the first quarter of the century or the psychologism of the second.

I am not going to talk about Turner’s more famous paintings — the illustrative and picturesque landscapes, the heroic compositions, the battle pieces, and the sentimental anecdotes, like the Téméraire or Sea Burial of Wilkie. I think most of these are very great paintings. The last is a spectacular abstract composition in red, grey, and black. But they are endangered by their obvious appeal. Instead I shall try to trace, in terms of pictures most of which can be found in collections of reproductions, the evolution of Turner not only as an abstract artist but as a painter who was working towards a vision of a kind of space unknown in the Occident. Tintoretto and Tiepolo had preceded him, but their achievements were not understood. Turner’s were not to be understood either. The nineteenth century appreciated him for his romantic, picturesque landscapes, the Impressionists for his divided and brilliant color, the early twentieth century smiled patronizingly.

Speaking of his color and of the necessity of discussing him as a painter in books, it happens that Turner had very little respect for his métier, or at least no knowledge of color chemistry. Practically all of the few paintings in American collections bear little resemblance to their original state. In mid life he began to take more care. Even so, hundreds of his paintings had disintegrated or faded hopelessly by the time of his death. The best are in the great Turner galleries in the Tate, in the National Gallery, and in a few English private collections. There are, though, many volumes of excellent color reproductions in any well-stocked public library.

I don’t want to talk about Turner’s technical means and his mastery of them. He was one of the first artists to use divided color consistently. He was one of the first artists to use pure spectrum color. He was one of the first artists to think of a painting as what has come to be called an abstraction. But these items in the history of art we have all learned in high school. Any revolutionary decorator could have accomplished as much. He is more important than this.

Leaving aside for a moment the main development of Turner’s art, I would like to say something about an aspect of his life which has always embarrassed his British biographers and critics — his attitude toward people and toward sex. His human figures have a strange inhumanity. This is something that seems to have been a late-eighteenth-century convention. They are like Longhi but less doll-like, more perhaps like Goya than anyone else, whose Spain, Time, and History (1799) might have been painted by Turner. This is an attitude towards people which will lead eventually to Giacometti or Tanguy, or, for that matter, Nadelman. These figures are the androids of science fiction — Between Decks (1827, Tate); Jessica (around 1830, Collection of Lord Leconfield, Petworth) — one of the most startlingly human figures in the world’s art, she looks for all the world like a visitor popping her head out of a flying saucer; and the large, red, unfinished nude in the Tate, which certainly has none of the appearance of a calendar girl but is one of the hottest pictures ever painted — so much so that it is positively difficult to look at. I happen to have seen it the same day I saw Boucher’s La Petite Morphi, which was in London on loan at the time and which is a very great painting in its own right. No chasm separates these two women, but a whole universe. I don’t wonder that Turner couldn’t finish it. But as far as he went he painted one of the world’s most unforgettable thoughts.

With these pictures, which all seem to have been painted at Petworth around 1830, it is convenient to place The Room at Petworth (1830, British Museum), because of its color — red — and its treatment of interior light — shafts and whorls of sun motes. It is the most fashionable of Turner’s paintings nowadays, one of his greatest, and the first intimation of the purely visionary style of his last years.

Looking into a book of Turner will impart something of the same sensation, but nothing can compare with walking into the great Turner galleries of the Tate. The sensation is not an aesthetic one but a human one. You feel immersed in the very being of a personality. It is like acquiring all at once a lifetime of a close family relationship. The ideal classical painting is as impersonal as Poussin — the person simply does not exist behind the canvas. A gallery full of Poussins would be a gallery full of independent objects of art which might just as well have grown naturally like crystals. Only the full impact of room after room of intensely personal and expressionistic paintings like Turner’s can bring home the full meaning of expressionism, personalism.

It is this personal power and personal integrity, fully as much as the plastic originality, which almost immediately override Turner’s taste.

It is interesting to compare Blake and Turner. Once again, like Poe and Whitman, the culture reveals its polarity. Both of them were tasteless artists, yet with Palmer and Calvert they are the leading painters of Great Britain. They were tasteless artists because good taste was not so much bad as trivial. They were plebeian artists and upstarts because official society was not so much vicious or dishonest as stereotyped. This is not always necessarily true, but looking back on the nineteenth and late eighteenth centuries, it is easy to believe that it has been.

Blake drew, rather than painted, objects in empty space. His work was a sort of small hypertrophy of the principles of Renaissance art. He was to Marcantonio as Marcantonio was to Raphael or Michelangelo — a reduction in scale, an increase in specialization. With all his hatred of Newton, he was an eminently Newtonian painter. Doubtless he would have hated Machiavelli too, but the figures of his mythology, whether plastic or literary, were isolated Renaissance men struggling with each other for mastery — Job, Los, Enitharmon, Satan are figures like the Borgias and the Medicis.

Turner painted, at least in his maturity, dynamic saturated space, all the forces of which were organically related like the strains and stresses, the vacuoles, vortices, and pseudopods which make up the living processes of an amoeba. Even in the heroic paintings, Ulysses is a scrawl of color, Polyphemus a cloud.

Both Turner and Blake started out as artists for the engraver and continued such work all their lives. Blake’s excited polemic for outline, silhouette, sharp planes of black and white, is known to everyone. As for Turner, Pye, his best engraver, said, “The one great aim of landscape art is to enable the spectator to see, as it were, into space; and this can be done only by a perfect knowledge of light.”

This is a description of emotional or even spiritual phenomena, rather than a statement of fact. If one compares Turner and his engravers with the work of Stothard and Blake, or even better with the contemporary French and Italian mezzotint and steel engravers, it is apparent that he was practically the inventor of the romantic vista which was to ornament the fine books of a century — the long receding stage sets of tonalities, late afternoon light shining through the whole meteorological collection of cloud forms — so different from the building-block landscapes, the cones, cylinders, and cubes, the representation of great mass, typical of the classical tradition as seen in Poussin. And, of course, different from the linear art of the best French engravers.

It is very seldom that an artist realizes immediately upon its invention the possibilities of a medium as Turner did those of steel engraving. The mezzotint technique of the Liber Studiorum approaches the later attitude toward light, but the medium sets definite limits — the limits, say, of the landscapes of Claude Lorrain or Rubens. The contrast of dark and light still looks suspiciously technical — sfumato.

All his life Turner painted Norham Castle. Compare the early paintings with the famous watercolor of 1835, the mezzotint of the Liber Studiorum with the engraving. This attitude toward reality as a complex of vortices of pure light reaches its height in the engravings in pictures like Llanthony Abbey (1835) in the England and Wales series.

The next step plastically is A Storm in the Mountains, once in the Darrell Brown collection but painted before 1810. Only the lower-right sixth of the painting contains some trees and cows. The rest is a turbulence of mingled rock, cloud, and light.

By 1835, one of Turner’s great years, many of the paintings and most of the watercolors have moved close to abstraction. This is the year of Sunrise, A Boat Between Headlands, Hastings, and the most abstract Norham Castle. From this point on, Turner moved steadily toward perfect mastery of a new vision.

It is exciting to take another subject like Norham Castle and trace it down the years: St. Gothard Pass in the Liber Studiorum. The sketches and watercolors of 1802, 1803, culminating in the Pass of St. Gothard Near Faido (1843), once in Ruskin’s collection and now, as I remember, in the Tate. The last is like nothing else in the world of art except Turner. This is the light metaphysics of the neo-Platonists and the medieval mystics. In paintings like this, Turner may not be a greater painter than Sesshu, Ying Yu-Chien, Hsia Kuei, the dragon painters, Tintoretto, or Tiepolo. But he has fully understood the nature of his vision — certainly more fully than any Western European artist except Tintoretto or Tiepolo. The principal difference with Turner is, again, this time on a very high level, his plebeian taste. His concept of space is the same as Sesshu’s. It is simply more simple-minded, less refined and less complex. In other words, less goes on in it and what does is more obvious.

I should say that the great paintings always to be found on exhibit in the Turner galleries of the Tate or the National Gallery and all reproduced somewhere in color are The Burning of the Ships (after 1840, Tate), Snow Storm at Sea (1842, National Gallery), Rain, Steam, and Speed (1844, National Gallery), Sunrise with Sea Monster (1845, Tate), Mercury and Argus (1836, Tate), Juliet and Her Nurse (1836, Tate), Sea Piece (1842, once in the Orrock Collection), and finally the great visionary paintings of his last years, his seventies, culminating in An Angel in the Sun (1846, Tate), Queen Mab’s Cave (1846, National Gallery), Mercury Sent to Admonish Aeneas (1850, Tate), Aeneas and Dido (1850, Tate), Departure of the Trojan Fleet (1850, Tate), and The Visit to the Tomb (1850, Tate).

These are not just paintings of a special vision. They are visionary paintings of a transcendence curiously like Blake at his best, but the work of an incomparably more knowledgeable painter.

It is remarkable how un-Western-European Turner was. He lived all his life in great simplicity, with his workingman father, and two successive mistresses who were both illiterate. He amassed an immense fortune and left it, with all his paintings, the best of which he had refused to sell, to his native country and to charity. (His will was broken by remote and greedy heirs.)

His life was an imperturbable march toward an always growing light — that reality peculiarly Turner’s — and an ever increasing mastery of the means of expressing that vision.

There is not the slightest trace in his life of artistic vanity or worldly ambition. In the sense in which the Greek philosophers meant it, in the sense of Lao-tze, he lived unknown.



This essay originally appeared in The Art Digest (February 1955) and was reprinted in Bird in the Bush (New Directions, 1959). Copyright 1959. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Other Rexroth Essays