in search of the sublime and beautiful
Turner, and Turner only, would follow and render on the canvas that mystery of decided lines,
that distinct, sharp, visible, but unintelligible and inextricable richness
which, examined part by part, is to the eye nothing but confusion and defeat,
which, taken as a whole, is all unity, symmetry, and truth.
– John Ruskin on the man he regarded as the greatest landscape painter of all time.
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was just 15 years old when he exhibited his first picture at the Royal Academy. His talent in the application of paint to render land, sea, sky and atmosphere was unmatched in his time. Commonly known as “the painter of light”, we can thank Turner for taking painting to the edge of abstraction and playing there, unafraid. His priceless legacy to the generations of artists who followed gave them (us) permission to engage this fearless and playful expression of the sacred sublime.
To Turner, light was the emanation of God’s spirit and this was why he focused the subject matter of his later paintings by leaving out distractions such as solid objects and detail, concentrating on the play of light on water, the radiance of skies and fires. Although these late paintings appear to be ‘impressionistic’ and therefore a forerunner of the French school, Turner was striving for expression of spirituality in the world, rather than responding primarily to optical phenomena. (Wikipedia)
The notion of the ‘sublime’ was one of the most important ideas that concerned English artists of his day. By the time Turner was born artists and writers had been talking about it for nearly 100 years, spurred by the discovery of an ancient treatise, supposedly by Longinus, on the subject. Jonathan Richardson in 1714 said the sublime was something that “must strike vehemently upon the Mind”; Edmund Burke wrote an influential inquiry into the “sublime and beautiful” in which he sought to distinguish the essential difference between the two, “terror” and “smoothness” ; while, by the 1790s writers had put the two back together and the Rev William Gilpin, who wrote about the ‘picturesque’ in a series of three essays which Turner carried with him on his early travels, would declare: “when we talk…of a sublime object we also understand that it is also beautiful.” (Weering Review)
Turner travelled extensively in the search of the sublime and beautiful. The paintings on this page are a selection which (admittedly to my very subjective taste) express these qualities, regardless of whether one knows their location or subject matter; paintings which, in Ruskin’s words, deliver to the soul “unity, symmetry and truth”.
As Turner aged his painting became (to our eyes) more abstract. To his contemporaries the pictures were ‘indistinct’. When told an American collector had complained about this, Turner replied: “You should tell him that indistinctness is my forte.”
Waves breaking on a Lee Shore at Margate (above) offers a good example of that “indistinctness”. Sand merges with sea which merges with sky which in turn merges with the indistinct buildings of Margate on the horizon. We are faced with an embrace of reality that is all-inclusive, reminding us that if our perception is open and empty enough, the sublime and beautiful is ever displayed before us.
The Tate Gallery (images)
From the bookshelf: one of my all-time favourites, Turner un seine Welt, by William Gaunt