When the British school of landscape painters emerged a full century after the heyday of the Roman and the Dutch, initially British artists were influenced in equal measures by their European predecessors.
The Royal Academy was founded in 1768 and to be accepted was a great public honour. Like all the European Academies, art was ranked according to subject matter. The Academy considered that landscape was inherently less worthy than every kind of painting that featured the human form. Religious painting, history painting, genre painting and portraiture were all categorically superior to landscape.
Despite this ingrained prejudice, in an outcome totally unforeseen by the Academicians, it turned out that the most illustrious products of the Royal Academy were two landscape painters: John Constable and JMW Turner. Both of them trained in the Academy Schools, exhibited in the Academy shows, and were elected Royal Academicians in their turn.
This magnificent rendition of a sun rising over a calm sea, showing an old-fashioned galleon setting sail, was regarded by the leading English art critic of the Victorian era John Ruskin as “the central picture of Turner’s career”.
Over the tops of the distant peaks on the left, you can glimpse the head of a giant, who is holding his hand up to cover his face. This is Polyphemus, a terrifying cyclops whom Ulysses has blinded, and from whose island of horrors he and his men are fleeing in their ships.
The story is found in Homer’s Odyssey. However, it seems to supply quite a slender, even negligible pretext for Turner’s painting. If we hadn’t been alerted by the title of the painting, it is unlikely that we would have noticed Polyphemus lurking in the hills, nor would we identify these ships with Homeric times and the saga of Ulysses.
What Turner’s painting communicates with great directness and intensity is something entirely emotive: the fanfare of triumph, and the momentous dawning of liberty. This theme would have been very familiar to Turner’s public; theirs was a revolutionary age. The dawning of liberty symbolised by a spectacular sunrise was a rousing image that people readily understood.
The ideas we can infer from Turner’s painting – of throwing off tyranny and defeating a monster of unreason – are those he shared with contemporary painters such as Delacroix and Goya, as well as with the contemporary poets that Turner read and admired, such as Byron and Shelley.
Claude was Turner’s inspiration in depicting the sun in his landscapes. And we know Turner craved comparison with the older artist. As with Claude, Turner chose to paint on a white ground, yet the fantastic novelty of his paintings consisted of their high-keyed colours, and the extraordinarily luminous effects he achieved by deploying translucent glazes with the whiteness of the ground shining through.
In the eighteenth century, Sir Isaac Newton had conducted experiments demonstrating how white light could be split into a colour spectrum, and Turner conjures up this scene as if it were the refraction through a prism. Such a magnificent evocation of natural splendour can be taken as evidence of Turner’s search for the sublime. His dying words are reported to have been “The Sun is God.”
When you have finished looking at all the paintings in this room please move through to the final room, France and the rise of modern art, to continue your audio tour.