A candid opinion of J.M.W. Turner’s ‘Fighting Temeraire’
So much has been written about J.M.W. Turner’s ‘The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838’ (pictured above) that another commentary on the subject would seem superfluous. However, I thought I would share my personal thoughts on the best known work of the English Romantic painter. I just find it so intriguing.
Turner’s painting shows his virtuoso skills. His handling of light, atmosphere and colour is amazing. For all this, one has to know a bit about the Temeraire to appreciate the work and to understand why Turner painted it in the first place:
HMS Temeraire was a 98-gun second-rate ship of the line of the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy. Launched in 1798, she served during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, mostly on blockades or convoy escort duties. She fought only one fleet action, the Battle of Trafalgar, but became so well known for that action and her subsequent depictions in art and literature that she has been remembered as The Fighting Temeraire.
She was a heroic ship whose service spanned 40 years. Small wonder that Turner and the British public felt a deep sense of loss when the Temeraire was towed up the Thames River in 1838 to be scrapped at Beatson’s Yard at Rotherhithe. A glorious chapter in British naval history was coming to an end.
Turner romanticised the historical event, giving pull rein to his imagination. His painting shows one tug pulling the ship, whereas two tugs were actually employed for the job. Turner’s Temeraire has its masts intact, but the masts had more likely been removed before the ship was broken up (see. the 1938 print below by British artist J.J. Williams). Not less significantly, it is sunset in Turner’s work, although the ship is known to have been towed when the sun was up.
But it is precisely Turner’s exercise of artistic freedom that gives his work its unique flavour. The painting was not meant to be a realistic depiction of the Temeraire and the circumstances surrounding its final journey. It is a subjective dramatisation of the event, one with symbolic undertones.
Turner renders the Temeraire in white and pale brown. Stripped of its sails and powerful guns, the ship comes off as an apparition. Pulling it is a steam tug, whose stack spews out a smoky flame that appears threateningly close to the ship. One also sees a small white flag, a symbol of surrender, instead of the Union Jack.
The entire scene reminds me of a funeral procession. It is Turner’s personal eulogy to the Age of Sail. But even as he laments the passing of that era, Turner appears to welcome the changes brought about by improvements in steam power during the Industrial Revolution. The sunset on the right side of the painting does not seem like the dimming of the light. It is rendered in blazing colour. On the left side is a waning crescent moon set against a blue sky. Turner performed a remarkable feet in combining pathos and grandeur.
I was drawn to Turner’s ‘Fighting Temeraire’ for the same reason that I am often captivated by Romantic art. Romanticism as a movement, of which J.M.W. Turner was a product, is described by the editors of Encyclopedia Britannica:
Among the characteristic attitudes of Romanticism were the following: a deepened appreciation of the beauties of nature; a general exaltation of emotion over reason and of the senses over intellect; a turning in upon the self and a heightened examination of human personality and its moods and mental potentialities; a preoccupation with the genius, the hero, and the exceptional figure in general and a focus on his or her passions and inner struggles; a new view of the artist as a supremely individual creator, whose creative spirit is more important than strict adherence to formal rules and traditional procedures…
Although I consider Turner’s ‘Fighting Temeraire’ an excellent work of art, I am ambivalent about it. My attitude has to do with the question of universal appeal. The painting may bedazzle the viewer who is neither British nor an art critic. But to grasp the nuanced message Turner wanted to drive home, he would have to be familiar with the Temeraire’s history, including its voyage to the scrapyard. Otherwise, he risks missing the various symbolic elements of the painting.
A comparison with Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (pictured below) will illustrate my point. The large 1937 black-and-white oil painting also deals with a historical subject: the German bombing of the town of Guernica in northern Spain on 26th April 1937. It would be useful, but not really necessary, for the viewer to know this fact in order to feel the horrors of war. Picasso made a universal statement which all the world could understand and experience.
Click on the image to see a larger version.
Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973)
Photo from Wikipedia