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J.M.W Turner: Painting Set Free

Past & Present

Turner’s landscape paintings featured much more than nature. To engage his viewers, the artist incorporated historical subjects into his work. Turner believed that the past offered lessons for the present: contemporary life could best be understood from a historical perspective. His themes ranged from classical and European history and mythology to biblical tales and Shakespeare.

Turner also explored contemporary subjects, including the modern state of Italy, the legacy of the Napoleonic wars, the whaling industry, and the occurrence of spectacular fires, such as the one that ravaged the Tower of London. Turner was also the first major European artist to address the most significant new technology of the era: steam power.

Curiously, Turner’s first and last history paintings featured episodes from the life of Aeneas, the hero who fled Troy carrying his father on his back, then wandered the Mediterranean in search of a home. The artist related personally to this tale of family devotion and constant travel. Like Aeneas, Turner sought comfort in the arms of widows: Sarah Danby and Sophia Booth. Unlike the Trojan hero, the artist kept his relationships secret.

Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus

Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus, Exhibited 1839, Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851, Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856. Photography © Tate, London 2015

In the pictures he made later in his career, Turner often contrasted past and present, sometimes focusing on paired subjects in order to explore the grand sweep of time and the instability of existence. This painting of ancient imperial Rome was intended to hang beside a view of the modern Christian city. Here, the widow Agrippina returns to Rome with the ashes of her husband, Germanicus. A celebrated military hero and a nephew of Emperor Tiberius, Germanicus was a victim of rivalries in the imperial family.

Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – The Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis

Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – The Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis, Exhibited 1843, Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851, Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856. Photography © Tate, London 2015

In this depiction of the aftermath of the Biblical flood, Turner tests Goethe’s theory that colour arises from the interaction of light and shade. The “Moses” referred to in the title is probably not only the biblical figure but also Moses Harris, the author of a treatise on colour. Turner’s spinning vortex-like compositions convey the eternal rotation of night and day, light and dark, and also the cyclical nature of life.

Organised by Tate Britain in association with the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the J. Paul Getty Museum

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