Towards the end of the XVIII century, the concept of sublime began to enter the world of European art, a fascinating idea expressing the relationship between man and nature. The sublime shows how an individual’s feelings of fear or apprehension, triggered by a comparison with things larger than himself (the infinity of time or space or the appearance of suggestive natural phenomena such as storms or earthquakes) can turn into a form of indistinct pleasure which on the one hand provokes fear and anguish and on the other attracts and seduces.
The concept of sublime played a role of fundamental importance in Romanticism, a complex cultural movement which, in the field of pictorial art, accorded primary significance to the state of mind which a work of art should arouse. The main artists of Romanticism were many in number, but among them William Turner stands out for his style, vision and perfect representation of sublime.
Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in London in 1775. His father was a barber and wigmaker and his mother a highly fragile woman whose mental health collapsed following the early death of her daughter. She was put in an asylum and died before Turner was thirty.
His passion for painting was evident at an early age and he entered London’s Royal Academy at fourteen. He began his first formative journeys in Britain and then Europe, and his paintings were exhibited at the Academy; his talent and fame developed hand in hand.
A recurring theme of his works is the depiction of nature in all its vigorous and violent forms, including blizzards, shipwrecks, storms and fires. These indissolubly link his work to the sublime and initially arouse in the observer a feeling of disorientation and fear, giving way to an unconscious, yet strong and mysterious, attraction.
Known as the ‘Painter of Light’, Turner attached great importance to this element, to the point where he could turn it into a mystical and independent presence.
Over the years, Turner distanced himself from the academic principles of the period, and developed a more personal style and technique: colours explode and shapes dissolve, becoming more abstract. These characteristic distinguished him from most of his contemporaries and led to his being considered one of the main forerunners of Impressionism.
One of his last and most famous paintings, Rain, Steam and Speed of 1844, is a perfect example of the development of his style.
A hundred and fifty years after Turner’s death in 1851, one of his greatest works, The Fighting Temeraire, was voted the Greatest British Painting of All Time in a BBC survey. Nowadays William Turner is remembered as one of the greatest British artists ever.
London, February 2019