By Dennis Raverty
The exhibition Turner’s Modern World, organized by the Tate Gallery in London and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, focused on Joseph Mallord William Turner’s later work, among the most radical painting executed anywhere during the entire 19th century. The exhibition’s title was inspired by the five-volume magnum opus of the Victorian art critic John Ruskin, Modern Painters, the first volume of which was published in 1843.
Ruskin asserted that Turner was among the greatest of living artists, because he had elevated modern landscape to the sublime level that had formerly been reserved for biblical, mythological, or historical subjects. These alone were considered capable of expressing lofty ideas and addressing the deep moral and spiritual issues that were simply not attainable through modern subjects or mere landscape.
Below history, religious, and mythical subjects (in the ranking of the day) were treatments of the nude, alone and in multifigured compositions. Lower still were portraits and genre scenes of everyday life, while situated even below that were landscape and still life, occupying the very bottom rungs on the ladder.
While Turner was employed by the Royal Academy in London, he was not teaching painting to advanced students as we might expect, but rather was instructing beginners in the mechanics of linear perspective, a modest task that was, however, thought to be suitable for a landscapist. Despite his now-celebrated painterly virtuosity, he never rose in the ranks of the conservative academy beyond teaching the elementary mechanics of rendering.
Turner worked in two distinct manners: a somewhat conservative and serene treatment of landscape, inspired by French Baroque painter Claude Lorrain, and a much more radical and agitated style, evident in his mature and late work, such as The Slave Ship. Once Turner had firmly established himself at the academy, he started to become the radical virtuoso of the brush for which he is so famous today, painting with lavish abandon and an irrepressible, almost expressionistic, fury. Avant-garde modernism, from Impressionism through postwar abstraction, is heavily indebted to his groundbreaking Romantic vision.
The same year that Turner’s painting was first exhibited at the 1840 Salon of the Royal Academy, two separate international conferences on slavery met concurrently in London. Although the slave trade had been officially abolished in Britain, companies still profited enormously from trade with colonies in the New World, where slavery was still legal and where many export commodities, such as sugar or tobacco, were tied to slave labor. The Slave Ship is an emotionally gripping plea for the end of slavery everywhere as an abomination against God and nature.
Turner’s painting is based on an incident that occurred 50 years earlier, when a deadly virus struck a large ship carrying hundreds of slaves shackled together. Because the slave ship carried insurance for “cargo” lost at sea, the slaver decided to throw overboard not only the dead but also those he feared might die, all to be devoured by piranhas. He did this to claim the full insurance money upon his return. Here and there can be seen manacled brown hands or feet emerging from the torrential waves, spotted with human blood, seagulls descending for the ghastly spoils.
The ship is tossed to and fro like a toy — the angry sea, the gusting wind, and the typhoon coming on, even the blindingly white sun, the windswept clouds in the overcast sky — all of nature seems to be furious with this irresponsible, reckless, and inhuman travesty of justice. The thick, viscous paint is troweled on vigorously with a knife, then spread and smeared by the artist’s fingers, as well as the brush. The result is a visceral, agonizing scream in paint. And the narrative is almost entirely conveyed without figures, allowing the sea, the sky, and the sun to tell all.
Although not religious in a conventional sense, Turner, the son of a barber, had been raised a Methodist, and a strong sense of justice continued to be an important element of his work throughout his career. This social responsibility of the artist is combined with an apocalyptic sense of drama that is almost biblical in works like The Slave Ship, and conveys the moral outrage of both the painter and the sympathetic viewer.
In one of his few paintings with openly biblical themes, Morning After the Deluge, the artist depicts Moses as a diminutive figure, inscribing the story of the Flood and envisioning the aftermath of the deluge as he writes it all down centuries later, the sea swarming with human visages representing not only those who had died but also those generations that had not yet been born.
What makes Turner principally a painter of the modern world (as opposed to the biblical world) is his use of recent and contemporary events, like the slaver’s ship, to imbue universal themes of human tragedy, corruption, shame, and an almost mystical transcendence with a strong apocalyptic, moral, and social imperative.
Dr. Dennis Raverty is an associate professor of art history at New Jersey City University, specializing in art of the 19th and 20th centuries.