Even in an age when we enter an art gallery ready for anything, a painting like J. M. W. Turner’s Snow Storm – Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth is unexpected. What, we wonder, is the meaning of this swinging, heaving, chaotic blur of elemental forces as menacing as a hurricane? And if the black wedge in the center is a ship, why are its outlines so indistinct, as if the image itself were dissolving under the relentless battering of sea and sky? Could this painting have been created more than a century and a half ago?
If the work looks audacious even to our eyes, the reaction to it when it was first exhibited in 1842 is not hard to understand. The public was outraged, scandalized. Mr. Turner, the critics said, had gone mad. Turner was naturally upset, but he had probably expected this response. He took great pains with the title so as to assure his viewers that he had put down on canvas exactly what had happened: a steamboat just off a harbor mouth in shallow water had been battered by a snowstorm. The 64-year-old Turner had had himself lashed to the ship’s mast for four hours in the midst of the storm. He said later that he had not expected to survive, but he had more than endured, he had triumphed; and the painting is one of his finest achievements.
The son of a poor barber, Joseph Mallord William Turner is now considered one of the greatest—perhaps the greatest—l9th-century British artists. Born in London in l775, he grew up near Covent Garden and a stone’s throw from the teeming dockyards along the Thames. He showed a precocious drawing ability at a very young age, was enrolled in the Royal Academy of Arts in 1789, and first exhibited at the Academy a year later when he was only 15. He concentrated on lithographs, went on sketching trips, and then turned to oils, painting in the fashionable picturesque style. Otherwise poorly educated and unschooled, he taught himself to appreciate poetry and studied philosophy. Along with Goethe, he believed in the divinity of Nature, putting him in harmony with the Romantic movement.
Like Delacroix, another artist with similar views, Turner was in the grip of a passionate need to express inarticulate feelings through color. He loved Nature—the sea in particular—but he feared it as well, seeing in its beauty something magical, mysterious, and terrible. High drama and catastrophe drew him irresistibly. When London’s Houses of Parliament caught fire one evening in l834, Turner raced to the scene, took out his sketchbook, and made numerous watercolors and drawings. There are also two full-size canvases of the conflagration. One of the paintings, from a vantage point on the South Bank, shows a crazed night sky crackling with huge plumes of orange and yellow, and with billows of purplish smoke. In the background, the towers of Westminster Abbey are lit up like molten gold. The black river in the foreground is heavy and glistening. There are boats on the water and people watching from the banks, but these scarcely exist. Humankind—along with its ships, bridges, and buildings—is being swept away by vast impersonal forces.
The sea figures prominently in many of Turner’s canvases, usually as the setting for some kind of tragedy: slaves being thrown overboard or a burial. When the subject is not a seascape, it might be a beleaguered army scaling the Alps or some other large-scale depiction of Nature’s wrath and man’s impotence.
Turner’s technique becomes increasingly swift and sure. In Snow Storm his lines swing and overlap, curves pivot back on themselves, and diagonal lines sharpen.
Form is suggested by broad areas of color, sometimes applied with a heavy impasto or gauzy indistinctness, and scrubbed onto the canvas until it resembles a film of floating light. In fact, because of his fascination with light Turner is often considered an early Impressionist.
However, during his life his work was unknown in France. He was discovered, or rediscovered, 20 years after his death by Monet and Pissarro, who were impressed but not necessarily changed by the experience. Turner’s imagery was too bleak, too transfixed by disaster. He actually wrote a poem on his dominant theme, called “The Fallacies of Hope.”
At the end of his life, Turner was a wealthy man, owning several houses in East Kent with views of the sea. He lived there in anonymity. People thought he was an eccentric sea captain by the name of Puggy Booth. He had never said much; now he’d become monosyllabic. But he was often to be found at one house or another, taking solitary walks along the coastline. He was always looking out to sea.
Meryle Secrest’s most recent book, Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography, was published by Knopf last year.
A version of this story originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 40 under the title “The Perfect Storm.”