JMW Turner: The Snowstorm.
     The Significance of Light
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps, 1812. The Tate
The poet Ezra Pound once said that there were two kinds of artists. The first kind were those who make beautiful pictures – with all the answers in them. You go away seeing no more than you did before. The second kind, the kind like Turner, he said, they change you. They haunt you. You have to get “educated-up.” You see beauty in a hundred places you never dreamed of.

WORDS BY:     John D’Agostino

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was the English Romantic landscape painter par excellence, and a dramatist of light. Ever the sublimist, Turner’s work always seems to be of two minds and moods (one of his pictures was actually titled Sunrise with Sea Monsters). The serene is always somehow mixed with the apocalyptic, the light always with the dark. Critics complained of Turner’s perpetual need to be extraordinary, and that he seemed to delight in abstractions. These “abstractions” would later be noticed by historians like Robert Rosenblum and his The Abstract Sublime, who saw the presages of Abstract Expressionism some 100 years earlier than expected. Romantic painters like Turner found new ways to express feelings of religious transcendence and spiritual dilemmas. They used the landscape as their trope to go beyond traditional religious iconography. As Kant once said, the beautiful charms. But its countertheme: the sublime – moves.


“The sun is God.”   – J.M.W. Turner
Turner’s genius lies in his recognition of the significance of light as more than just an optical phenomenon or parlor trick for atmospheric heroics. Light is not “present” in his paintings, in so much as it is a singular, haunting presence. His work is literally drenched in the stuff. Light radiates with cosmic reckoning and poetic intensity that either foretells of doom or hope. Turner’s pictures are pure bardic opera: detonations of light, ensconsed in aquatic terrains and primordial landscapes. Along with William Blake, Turner starts to mark the shift from a kind of art that would constitute a representation of vision, and not just a form of visual journalism. Not just a mechanical copy of our lives, but perhaps a mysterious parallel universe.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Slave Ship

Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Slave Ship: Slavers Throwing Overboard The Dead & Dying, 1840. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


Strength to Dream Catalog

This text first appeared as part of the paper The Strength to Dream: How Remnants of the Past Illustrate a Legacy of the Representation of Vision by John D’Agostino, published in ArtForum’s Art&Education Papers Archive, 2010.

View the full paper online here.
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Take Turner’s The Slave Ship: Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying (1840). The picture is a maelstrom of blood, light, retribution and redemption. The picture was inspired by the real horrors of the slave trade, and would became a rallying cry for the abolitionist movement. Slave ship captains would throw men, women and children overboard to waiting sharks when the ship’s human cargo was dying faster than anticipated. They were insured for “losses at sea” but not “dead on arrival.” Turner’s vision is a horrific tour de force of visual havoc: chained legs and arms flailing in a watery deluge of bloody light and apocalypse. Turner’s critic and main champion, John Ruskin eventually sold the painting. He said it was just too painful to look at every day in his dining room.

Not quite gentlemanly British art, this was. Some artists, like Delacroix, disapproved of Turner’s methods: his filthy hands and dirty fingernails (one which he kept long on purpose to paint with like a “claw”), that bore the marks of a painter who quite literally was unafraid to wallow in the muck. One story goes that a young apprentice who came to Turner was cruelly turned away, when his lily-white, clean hands were demanded for inspection. “You’re no artist!” Turner angrily proclaimed.

Turner’s scenes were not so much scenes, as much as regions of the imagination. Light was his chief protagonist, no longer relegated to being some bit player in the chorus. His figures, in contrast, were often puny little creatures, engulfed in it all. The originator, the sun, was for Turner, the living core of all of nature. Passersby were often frightened by how Turner would stare endlessly into the sun, fearing for his eyesight. Didn’t it hurt? No, he said, not any more than like looking into a candle. As the apocryphal story goes, Turner’s dying words on his deathbed were: “The sun is god.”

Turner realized that the sublime was a verb, as in, to sublime – to elevate, to raise upward. His imagery does not come from the eye. It comes from inside the eye.

Painting from behind the eyeball, as it were.  •