Turner and the Dark Side of the Sublime

I’ve been meaning to post about Joseph Mallord William Turner for quite a while.  Like other aspects of this blog, however, that got put on the back burner until  a few days ago, when, while reading about his oeuvre, I thought, if I’d had a chance to meet this guy, we probably would have had a lot to talk about!

Well, that was the impression I had from Olivier Meslay’s very short biography.  Then in the final section of Gabriele Crepaldi’s book, which is mostly about Turner’s works rather than his life, I read that at least in his later years, his “irritable temperament and egoistic nature” and single-minded devotion to painting made him quite hard to get along with.(1)

Maybe when he was younger?  He was probably about 23 or 24 when he painted this self-portrait in 1798-99.

File:Turner selfportrait.jpg

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

Anyway, Turner lived during a time period I’m particularly interested in.  He was born in London in 1775 and died in 1851.  Early in his career he was prevented from traveling to Europe by the twenty-two years of nearly constant war between Britain and France after the French Revolution.  The Napoleonic Wars, however, also became grist for the mill: several of his paintings are of naval subjects, and in 1832, Turner made a tour of Napoleonic battlefields and other historic sites in preparation for providing illustrations for Sir Walter Scott’s biography of Napoleon Bonaparte.(2)

But I digress.  In 1802, the short-lived Peace of Amiens allowed Turner to travel to Europe for the first time, and where many other artists would no doubt have headed for the Louvre, he went to the Alps first.(3)  Thus began a “fruitful fascination with lofty peaks and yawning chasms,”(4) making him “one of the first great painters of mountains.”(5)  He may have visited the Alps as many as nine times.(6)

[Many travelers’ journals from Turner’s time and earlier] describe in graphic detail the difficulties the travelers suffered, the bitter cold, the often hostile weather, the countless obstacles to be overcome, the paths rough or tortuous, sometimes barely secured or hard to follow.  Some of the authors of these reports wrote (not without exaggeration) of the precipitous slopes they had to cross, the avalanches of snow and scree to which they were subjected, the snowstorms which caught them unawares…or the desperate search for a hut or a sheltered spot where they could spend the night.  At the ame time, however, in addition to the fear, exertion, and exhaustion, there are often in such…descriptions unreserved feelings of wonder and awe produced by places where nature seemed to reign supreme and where man appeared to be insignificant and forced to recognize his fragility and inadequacy.  This mixed feeling of horror and fascination…[was to become] the concept of the “sublime.”(7)

The element of fear in the Sublime is somewhat difficult to grasp today, but two hundred years ago, it might have been the dominant component.  Few people traveled in mountainous areas unless it was a necessity, and many of the peaks of the Alps remained unclimbed.  Edward Whymper made the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, well over a decade after Turner’s death.

With that in mind, it’s understandable that in Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps (1812) the mountains are almost absorbed into the characteristically dramatic sky.

File:Joseph Mallord William Turner 081.jpg

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

The mountain, the heavy clouds, and the avalanche are united into one force of Nature opposing Hannibal.  The whole work is much more dynamic and menacing than Bierstadt’s visions of North America.  Given the year in which it was exhibited, it’s hard not to make a connection between this vision of Hannibal’s battle against the elements and Napoleon’s winter retreat from Moscow.

The avalanche at far right relieves the darkness and helps keep the composition balanced, and again blends with the sky along a line that reinforces the strong elliptical pathway that the eye follows around the painting.  Like the masses of falling snow on the left, it’s also a strong downward-pointing shape, adding to the sense of impending catastrophe as the dark, heavy clouds seem to close in on the valley.  This is one of several avalanches Turner included in his paintings, and in doing so, he ensured that this piece would continue to convey the dark side of the sublime, even for those with little understanding of the historical scene he was depicting.

Mountains themselves may not evoke human powerlessness and fragility to the same degree now, but avalanches remain dangerous and difficult to predict.  While we won’t be attacked by hostile tribes, and we’re better equipped to deal with storms than Hannibal was, avalanches are still a serious hazard for climbers and backcountry skiers.  Although we have theoretical knowledge, and last-resort safety equipment, venturing into avalanche country in the winter is like going into grizzly country in the summer.  The actual threat may be remote, but the thought that it’s present lingers in the back of the mind—less than a worry, but more than an awareness.  We might hope for a sighting from a distance, but we don’t want to be anywhere near an avalanche.

Maybe I’m making more of this than I should, but that’s what struck a chord with me.  Can you imagine the painting without the tumult of snow pouring down the mountainside?

Turner was an incredibly prolific artist who painted a variety of subjects.  Along with the Alps, seascapes and ships were among his favorites.  He completed four major paintings related to the Battle of Trafalgar, and one of these became one of his best-known works.  To mark the anniversary of the battle on October 21, I’ll have another post ready.


  1. Gabriele Crepaldi, Turner (Munich, London and New York: Prestel, 2011), 139.
  2. Olivier Meslay, Turner: Life and Landscape (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2005), 89.
  3. Ibid., 68-69.
  4. Ibid., 71.
  5. Crepaldi, Turner, 141.
  6. Meslay, Turner: Life,  69.
  7. Crepaldi, Turner, 141-142.

One thought on “Turner and the Dark Side of the Sublime

  1. Pingback: More Notes on Turner | Chrome Oxide Visual Arts

This novice artist welcomes comments and conversation, but please keep it polite. Inappropriate or offensive comments may be edited or deleted.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s