Romantic Baroque: the Landscapes of William Turner

It might seem contradictory that the landscapes of the Romantic movement (with which William Turner’s work is usually associated) are so beautiful. The Romantics of the 18th and 19th century were responsible in many ways for destroying the traditional forms that preceded them and opened the way to ugliness of modern art. Their emphasis on personal feelings and especially intense emotion of the artist is contrary to the traditional idea of painting in conformity to objective standards for the greater glory of God. There is a desire to communicate emotion in the baroque also, but it is not the emotion of the artist that is emphasized. Rather, it is the emotion of the person painted or sculpted that is portrayed. Bernini’s St Theresa of Avila, for example, reveals her emotional state, not his.

Subjectivity is not necessarily a bad thing however: when those subjective feelings coincide with what is objectively true, there is the possibility of something good. Broadly speaking, this is the case for Romantic landscapes, provided the desire of the artist is to communicate the beauty of nature (and other things being equal). The training the artists received in the 18th and 19th centuries was essentially the same as that from the previous period: which was an adaptation of the academic method - originally developed for the study of the human person -for landscape. It transmitted the baroque visual vocabulary of form without departing from core Christian principles (although steadily becoming more and more detached from a Christian understanding of them).

As mentioned before, baroque landscape employed control of focus and intensity of colour that corresponded to the way that the human person naturally perceives the world around him. The inclination in the 17th century baroque was to represent those areas where the colour is muted in sepia. This meant that they very often gave the appearances of very deep shadow everywhere that was not  the primary focus of interest. This of course, is not always appropriate. To overcome this artists started to become more sophisticated in the range of colours they used for those areas rendered tonally.

The great English artist, William Turner developed a striking answer to the problem. Drawing on the colour theory of Goethe, he developed a system in which he rendered form tonally, but in a variety of colours rather than just sepia. It is not easy to discern a strict format, but broadly speaking and as best as I have been able to discern it, in the foreground he used yellow for those areas in sunlight, and red through to deep red ochre and finally sepia for shadow.  Then those areas that are in the distance he used blues for sunlight and, violets and blacks for shadow. All this is varied subtly dependant also upon the natural colour of the objects. The skill needed to combine all of this and yet still give the painting an impressional unity is immense. What I have described applies to land, building and trees. His skies are rendered in blues, greys and if painting sunsets, red and yellow; and seas in this system seem to sit between the two because the water reflects the light of the sea and land.

It appears to me that in many of his watercolours, which would be painted quickly, he relies on this more (perhaps he is developing and perfecting the technique through them). In his oil paintings he uses this variation but the control is more subtle – after all the background areas, which these are, should be subordinate to the main foci of interest, which are going to be rendered more literally.

Another feature of Turner’s art is the reduction of the area which is sharp focus (with a corresponding decrease in the areas which are painted blurred. The out-of-focus areas are painted as though in peripheral vision. Turner used to practice painting his peripheral vision. This accounts for the looseness of many of his works. However, he never abandons the points of focus altogether. The oil painting Snowstorm, left, for example, is almost all blurred blizzard, there is, nevertheless the sharp line of a mast and a daub of bright colour for the boat, so that the eye has somewhere to rest. Many of his later oils are painted as thin washes of colour, mimicking his watercolour method there are many of these in Tate Britain museum in London - I am not sure if Turner considered all of them finished although to the modern eye they look splendid.

What is interesting is that to my knowledge the colour theory of Goethe is not consistent with ideas of modern physics, yet it works well in Turner’s paintings. It may be a lucky inspiration (or perhaps there is something to Goethe after all!). Regardless of the validity of Goethe’s theories, the success of the paintings is a tribute to Turner’s great skill and intuitive sense of what works once he has painted it.

The paintings shown are watercolours except for Snowstorm, above and the two at the bottom of the series below, which are oils.