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J.M.W. Turner’s Fascination with the Sea

Abby Boglioli is a freshman at Syracuse University. She is majoring in stage management in the Drama department and enjoys reading, spending time in the sun, and hanging out with her friends.

Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in London in 1775 and went on to become one of England’s most famous landscape painters. He began studying at the Royal Academy Schools when he was just fourteen years old. Soon afterwards, in 1790, he exhibited his watercolors at the annual summer exhibition of the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts. Later, in 1796, he submitted his first oil painting to the Academy’s exhibition. He would continue to present his art at the Academy for several years afterwards and in 1799, he was elected an Associate Member of the Academy (he also taught perspective at the Academy for some time). Turner had an unforgettable impact on Romanticism. He changed ideas about light and color, which would leave lasting impressions on the technique of painting. His work would go on to inspire countless artists. The way he painted with oil made it look like he was using watercolor, which revealed the true mastery behind his work. His art was truly a spectacular sight to see.

   The public could see many of Turner’s works, especially his large oil paintings because upon his death he donated around a hundred of his finished oil paintings to the National Gallery in London. These did not make up all of the art he created in the over fifty years he was active. Turner also had a gallery in the West End where he would present his art. The gallery doubled as his studio. When he died, he did not leave his studio to anyone in his will. This meant that there were no clear owners of his property and most importantly, there were no clear heirs to his works of art. The art he left behind became a part of the Turner Bequest of 1856 that resulted in a legal battle within Turner’s extended family. His studio in the West End gallery held over 19,000 drawings, watercolor studies, and other sketches and work on paper plus 180 unfinished oil paintings. Many of the pieces from the Turner Bequest can now be viewed in Tate Britain.

   Many of the watercolor sketches in Turner’s studio were called “color beginnings” (Riding and Johns, 78) and were departure points for his oil paintings. They were usually watercolor sketches that focused on the color palette of the landscape he was planning to compose. There is so much history behind every work of art, even if it was a sketch that the artist never intended to show to the public. This is true for the Untitled Seascape by J.M.W. Turner in the collections of the Syracuse University Art Galleries. It may not be one of his spectacular oil paintings, but it is nonetheless a rare watercolor that was likely one of his “color beginnings” for a much bigger composition.

   The date of the watercolor in Syracuse is unknown. Due to its small size (5 11/16 x 7 15/16 inches), we can surmise that it was probably from one of Turner’s sketchbooks. Turner was almost never without a sketchbook and pencil. He would constantly paint while traveling, making quick watercolor sketches of the landscapes that surrounded him. Unmistakably a Turner, the picture depicts a calm colored sea with a beautiful strip of cobalt blue along the horizon line. But the sky gives us a different story. The clouds are a dark grey, possibly marking a storm that has just passed through or is incoming. There is also a swathe of reddish orange in the bottom left corner that suggests the sun is beginning to set. Possibly the most striking part is the tiny blue silhouette of a ship in the center of the distant horizon. It is difficult to detect at first glance because it blends completely into the blue of the sea. Upon close scrutiny, one can also find Turner’s initials in the bottom right corner of the sketch.

   Untitled Seascape reminds us of many of Turner’s watercolor sketches focused on the sea. His Beach and Sailboat (1843-45) and Sailboat (after 1825) share similarities in composition and colors. Beach and Sailboat share the beautiful strip of blue as the horizon line. There is a tiny ship on the left side of the page, also painted a pale blue that blends into the water. The painting is about the ocean first, then the ship, much like our untitled sketch. The Sailboat looks like a much more spontaneous watercolor. Each facet of the painting seems to have been executed with haste. The sea is a few quick swipes of the brush with the color gray. The red strip of the sunset on the horizon bleeds into the gray stormy sky. A line of blue, which seeps into the red, marks the horizon. The final detail is a boat that is simply a quick squiggle that teeters on the left side of the painting. It gives us a glimpse of Turner’s sketching methods. It also reveals the artist’s sheer talent—he was able to capture the scene at hand with just a few swipes of his brush. Both Beach and Sailboat and Sailboat also demonstrate a method Turner used called “wet-on-wet” for which he would wet the page he was painting on so that all the colors would bleed into each other.

   The sketch in the SUArt Galleries is also very reminiscent of one of Turner’s most famous works, Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and the Dying, Typhoon Coming On) (1840) in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. This large oil painting is comprised of brilliant reds and yellows that reflect the setting sun in the sky as one sees a ship drifting into a storm. In the sea are limbs of drowning slaves depicted in the foreground. Bodies have just been dumped into the unforgiving sea. Here, the turbulent sea presents a sharp contrast to the calm waters in the untitled watercolor we have in our collection, but the similarities between the coloring suggest that the sketch may have been a study for the Slave Ship.

   Turner would often use preliminary sketches to compose his larger oil paintings. A specific example of how Untitled Seascape sketch may have been a preliminary study for a larger composition, is his Ship in a Storm (1826), a mezzotint that was made after a watercolor sketch in the Tate collections. Both the print and the sketch reveal how Turner planned to portray the sweeping waves and how the ship would be swept under the water in the mezzotint. Untitled Seascape was thus likely to be just one of his countless studies that Turner made of the ocean.

   As I have mentioned earlier, the sketch in Syracuse could have lived in one of Turner’s many sketchbooks. For instance, his Ambleteuse and Wimereux sketchbook is filled with several studies for his oil paintings. Turner used these preliminary sketches to focus on certain parts of the landscape that he wanted to study more closely. Indeed, the Ambleteuse and Wimereux sketchbook features many of his maritime studies. In it we find sketches depicting the colors of a whale being harpooned, the effects of the sunset at Ambleteuse, and the difference between active storm clouds at sea and ones that were fanning out and away. Given the sheer number of studies Turner made of the ocean during his lifetime, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact sketchbook to which the watercolor in Syracuse belongs.

   Turner’s Untitled Seascape portrays many classic motifs of Romanticism. The sky takes up most of the picture space and it is reflected in the ocean. The clouds are dark and have a sense of foreboding. The ship in the center of the page goes almost unnoticed until we look closely at the image. The sketch shows the power of the ocean and how small and powerless man is compared to it. It is vast and unforgiving, yet beautiful. Nature is the focal point and the ship is a reminder of humankind’s fragility.

   It is understandable why the ocean transfixed Turner in such a way. Having lived thirty minutes away from the Pacific Ocean my entire life I know that no visit to the sea is quite like the last. The waves can be forty feet high one day crashing like thunder, and lazily lapping at your feet the next. The absolute power the ocean holds is universally understood. Even now when the ocean threatens to flood and swallow up the very land that we have claimed as our home. Ocean levels rising prove that humans are not more powerful than nature, but rather that we are and always will be helpless when it turns against us.

   Nature will destroy us in order to survive and we will not be able to outlast it. The earth does not care about the human race; we are merely its inhabitants. We are looking at the same ocean Turner painted, but he never had to bear witness to how humanity was going to ruin it. There used to be a slogan that “the solution to pollution is dilution,” and this led to vats of chemical waste being dumped into the water since the 1970s (Kashi). Now we know that this is not a solution. Every summer a New Jersey-sized “dead zone” forms in the Mississippi River Delta because of our dumping waste into the river. And there is also the Texas-sized (and growing) plastic “island” that has formed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean due to our inability to stop using single-use plastics. Humans are destroying our oceans partially because some of us just do not care and partially because governments all around the world are generally unwilling to stop creating so much waste. People care much more about production and profit and therefore fail to realize that our means of production is causing our planet permanent harm. Countries like China and the USA create so much waste while ignoring the facts of climate change. Even the President of the United States undermines the impact of climate change. Turner’s paintings should act as a reminder of how beautiful marine life is and they should prompt people in power around the world to take action so that our oceans are protected.

   The pollution we are creating is ruining nature, the very nature that inspired the Romantics and captured their imagination. Human beings are trying to conquer nature and in doing so we are ruining our own home, our planet. We should begin to appreciate nature again like the Romantics once did. If we don’t, it could be ruined by our own selfish endeavors.

 

Further Reading

  • Craven, Samantha. “A Front-Row Seat to Ocean Pollution.” UN Environment, June 7, 2018.
  • Brown, David Blayney. “Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851,” artist biography, December 2012, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, December 2012.
  • Vaughan, William. Romanticism and Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 2006. 158–174.
  • J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours.” Tate.
  • Kashi, Ed. “Marine Pollution.” National Geographic, June 13, 2017.
  • May, Stephen J. Voyage of The Slave Ship: J. M. W. Turner’s Masterpiece in Historical Context. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2014.
  • Riding, Christine and Richard Johns. Turner & The Sea. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013.

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