The Late Works of J. M. W. Turner: The Artist and His Critics, by Sam Smiles
Yale University Press, 2021
This is a fascinating extended study of this great artist’s output from the age of sixty until his death at seventy-six in 1851. Those last sixteen years were amongst Turner’s most productive, although to his contemporaries they appeared wasted; many failed to comprehend what he was achieving with his saturated colour experiments. More recently these late works have been recognised as some of his very finest paintings, and yet still they remain controversial. For some they represent the first attempts at non-figurative painting, a path which, especially for American art historians, leads to the Abstract Expressionists of the late 1940s and 50s, while more European-focused critics can claim that he was the forerunner of the Impressionists. A case can be made for both assertions, but, as the author is at pains to point out throughout this fine book, there is so much more to these paintings than their supposed influence on later artists.
The opening chapter is particularly thought-provoking and neatly sets the scene for the rest of the book. While Smiles’s evaluation of the term ‘late style’ might initially seem an exercise in semantics, it is actually a fascinating exploration of what that term means when applied to different artists. When we consider any artist’s final works, there are all kinds of assumptions which may be made almost subconsciously. Leaving aside the often spurious notion that such works may suggest some kind of premonition of impending death, there is the more serious claim that late works are vehicles for artists to communicate great truths that they have discovered throughout the course of their long lives. So many artists can be cited as examples of this, Monet, Matisse, and Rembrandt being some that spring to mind first. On the other hand, there are clearly others for whom their final works are a poor imitation of their greatest achievements, as the infirmity of old age diminishes their physical and mental powers. Do the later works of Turner fit this syndrome, or is there evidence to support the former view? Are there perhaps other factors which need to be taken into consideration?
At the start of Chapter Six, Smiles lists a group of questions that highlight some of the difficulties with the term ‘late style.’ For example, he asks “Do these later paintings simply mark the final stage of a long development, or can they be effectively treated as a distinctive body of work?” With Turner, as with other artists whose ‘late styles’ are extremely distinctive, such as Rembrandt, the answers are both complex and open to different interpretations. In Turner’s particular case, while stylistically the later paintings represent a significant shift in execution, in terms of subject matter there is clear continuity. As Smiles points out, the last four paintings which Turner exhibited relate the story of Dido and Aeneas, a return to classical themes that he had explored throughout his long career.
In any discussion of how contemporary critics viewed Turner’s late works, Ruskin must figure significantly. An early supporter of Turner, he was instrumental in condemning this output as the product of a deranged mind. Ruskin’s relationship with Turner was always problematic, and Smiles is keen to emphasise that the critic, while enthusiastic regarding Turner’s early artistic achievements, was less than impressed by the artist’s lifestyle.
One painting in particular, The Angel Standing in the Sun (1846), is worth considering in detail, for the opinion that Ruskin gave of the work and also for its content and style. Turner painted Biblical and classical scenes throughout his career. While clearly fascinated by the effects of light and colour, he did not reject traditional subject matter, but turned to the Bible to make statements on religion and human experience. This particular painting features an angel in the centre of a swirling sun, with several characters visible around her. Smiles fully identifies all of these: Adam and Eve discovering the murder of Cain, Delilah cutting Samson’s hair, Judith’s servant holding the head of Holofernes, and a dancing skeleton, perhaps representing Death itself. This is clearly a vengeful angel, celebrating —or at least reminding us of— the tragedies of human existence. Smiles makes a further, persuasive interpretation: that this painting, along with two other religiously-themed works of the same period, are “contrasting the optimism of faith with the judgement of history.” Such an interpretation would suggest that a critic like Ruskin, with his high moral code, would find this work to his liking. It was not to be.
In 1857, some six years after the artist’s death, Ruskin wrote that the paintings produced by Turner between 1835 and 1845 showed evidence of “approaching decline...... and, considerable feebleness,” and then added that after 1845 “Turner’s health gave way and his mind and sight partially failed,” in a final condemnation claiming that paintings like The Angel Standing in the Sun were “indicative of mental disease.” (Of course, Ruskin had form in making psychiatric diagnoses of people whose actions was inexplicable to him. In 1849, a year after his marriage to Effie Gray, he wrote to his father stating that she had a “nervous disease affecting the brain.... An illness bordering on incipient insanity.”)
One of the paintings that Turner produced in this period was Snow-Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water, and Going by the Lead, 1842. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy that year and was met by a hostile reception, with one critic writing that the picture showed “soapsuds and whitewash.” In so many ways, this is the picture which encapsulates several of the issues surrounding our perceptions of Turner. Indeed, as the author here correctly states, while Turner’s contemporaries puzzled over which incident the picture purports to document, it is no less comprehensible to us now. Yet the story behind its production is the one that most people will know regarding Turner and his life, in which he was tied to the mast of a ship for several hours in the face of a snow-storm at sea.
As with so many apocryphal stories concerning incidents in the lives of great artists, this one has elements which may serve to corroborate it, but as Smiles make clear, it equally has many contradictory elements that cast doubt on its veracity. Investigations regarding which storm was involved, and when, and even which ship Turner was on, remain inconclusive. Whatever the ultimate outcome of that enquiry, it is not in doubt that the picture represents a high point in Turner’s oeuvre and, as such, is worth examining for what it tells us about his late style.
The painting is a swirling mass of water, rain, snow, and steam from the struggling ship. So far as the subject matter is concerned, then, it is entirely consistent with other, earlier, works by Turner, who often counterbalanced the natural world with an image of modernity. In another of his most-loved works, The Fighting Temeraire, he uses the old ship as a symbol for the past, as it is dragged along to its destruction by a more modern steam tug-boat. In Snow-Storm, the same kind of symbolic representation of the modern world is contained in the steam boat, but this time it is struggling in the face of the powerful storm, which Turner claimed to have experienced first-hand, tied to the mast. What is most relevant, however, is the attempt, not merely to represent the power of the storm, but to capture the experience of it. It here becomes irrelevant whether Turner was tied to the ship’s mast or not: what matters is that the artist had the confidence to attempt such an enterprise. Smiles likens this work to a self-portrait, and it is an entirely appropriate comparison. The natural power of the storm is the true subject, the helplessness of the man-made object its result, and the manner of its portrayal the artist’s experience, whether real or imagined.
However, there is more to link these two works together. In the earlier painting the subject matter contrasts with the setting of sun, space, and sea. These are the eternal images of our natural world in which our man-made creations appear, are used, and then destroyed. The later picture uses the same contrasting imagery, but this time, instead of nature seemingly in harmony with and illuminating human action, it is placed in opposition to it, instrumental in its destruction. Although there is a distinct and significant shift of emphasis, there is also continuity in Turner’s approach and execution. While on the surface these paintings may be about similar circumstances — sea-bound ships going about their human business within their usual contexts— in fact they are also about Turner and his own personal experiences. Early in his career Turner showed himself to be fascinated by the play of light, water, and air, and these preoccupations emerge in both his historical and classical subjects and in the more traditional land- and seascapes. This fascination lasted all his life, and in the latter stages of his career he expanded his repertoire, developing a technique which enabled him to make visible the suggestion of human experience as he knew it.
Turner, like so many artists, had an uneasy relationship with critics. While he reportedly often claimed to be not in the least concerned about their opinions, it is true that towards the end of his life many of them failed to understand what he was trying to achieve. An anecdotal story is often repeated concerning Ruskin’s interpretations of Turner’s work in his book Modern Painters. Turner often asserted that he had never read the book. However, an obituary published shortly after his death related that he had been heard to claim, “He (Ruskin) knows a great deal more about my pictures than I do, he puts things into my head, and points out meanings that I never intended.”
Such conflicting evidence merely exacerbates the confusion that can beset the analysis of a great painter’s work, and in the case of Turner, whose later works were so powerful, it is not surprising that his contemporaries were unable to fully appreciate what he was attempting to do. This well researched and beautifully illustrated book certainly places Turner’s final works in their proper context, within a continuum which began early in his career and lasted, almost unbroken, until his triumphant last years. It is a measure of this study’s quality that these later works can now be appreciated as the ultimate declarations of a truly unique artistic vision, and not the careless daubing of an unhinged mind.--Paul Flux