Maritime Art: J.M.W. Turner’s “Fighting Temeraire”

J.M.W. Turner is, without a doubt, my favorite artist of any age. I’ve spent many a day over the years standing in front of one or another of his mysterious pieces in the Tate Gallery in London breathing in the incredible atmosphere he created in his paintings. I used one of his images, Whalers 1845, for the frontpage of the Sea-Fever Consulting LLC website.

Today, Mary Tompkins Lewis, an author and art history professor at Trinity College, wrote a great essay for the Masterpiece column of the Wall Street Journal about one of Turner’s most powerful paintings, Fighting Temeraire. (The Tale of the Temeraire: A Great Painting Tells of the Ship’s Final Passage)

J.M.W. Turner's Fighting Temeraire

Lewis writes:

Under a pale sliver of a moon at left and a sun that hovers on the horizon of a sanguine sky at right, Turner’s majestic Temeraire glides soundlessly on the river’s broad, glass-like expanse. Powerless now and pulled by a stalwart, steam-powered tug, an icon of the new technology that had replaced it, the hulking ship seems wraithlike, its image all but disappearing into the waters that capture so clearly the tug’s reflection. A second steamer emits its own sooty trail in the background, and smaller sailing ships recede into the middle distance. Fog- and smoke-shrouded factories or storehouses appear on shore at right, and a skiff with tiny figures and a shadowed buoy float in the shallows closer up. There is little to distract us, however, from the arresting vision of the Temeraire on its final voyage, and the ineffable sense that we are witnessing the end of an era, a stately passage from an age that had harnessed human valor to one of machine-driven power. Turner’s “Fighting Temeraire,” in fact, is a history painting of the highest caliber.

Please read Lewis’ entire essay.

In a poll held by the National Gallery and the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, members of the British public voted “Fighting Temeraire” as the Greatest Painting in Britain.

If you want to experience this masterpiece in person, stop by The National Gallery in London. If you can’t get there, check out the cool interactive 3-D gallery Tate Britian’s website which is chockful of Turner information.

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Peter A. Mello

Husband, father, son. Lifelong mariner, student of leadership, photographer. Professional creative placemaker.

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