The romantic concept of the Sublime in the work of JMW Turner.

The romantic concept of the Sublime in the work of JMW Turner.
To the romantic painters the landscape was more than just a pretty picture that should be presented to others, it was open to interpretation. There were various schools of landscape painting developing in the 18th century, each one reflecting a different aspect of nature’s character. Some considered nature awesome, and often emphasised its terror. Other painters ignored extremes and tried to define for themselves nature’s reality, such as an abbey decaying in the Yorkshire hills (Hirsh, D., 1969, p.26).
These schools of landscape painting relate to concepts of the Sublime and the Picturesque as outlined by art theorists of the 18th century such as John Ruskin and Edmund Burke. Ruskin and Burke had differing opinions on what constituted sublimity and the difference between it and beauty. (http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/ruskin/atheories/3.1.html).
Edmund Burke, who published Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful in 1757, believed that terror was the main principle of the sublime (Hewison, R., 1976, pp32-33). He believed that we derive pleasure from the contemplation of a terrifying sight that cannot actually physically harm us. We feel astonishment but at the same time relief that it is not real. Burke also defined the opposition of beauty and sublimity by breaking it down to physical responses of pleasure and pain, where pleasure is derived from beauty and pain from sublimity. According to Burke,
“The pleasure of beauty has a relaxing effect on the fibres of the body, whereas sublimity, in contrast, tightens these fibres.” (http://www.victorianweb.org/philosophy/sublime/burke.html)    
John Ruskin, who was an important art theorist of the 19th century and great supporter of J.M.W. Turner, initially believed it was not possible to distinguish between beauty and sublimity, that beauty actually encompassed sublimity. However, once his ideas of the beautiful had developed in the second volume of his book Modern Painters it seemed that they excluded too much so he used another category, the sublime, to include the delight that he took from nature and art which he could not consider beautiful; the pleasure of strong and violent emotion, of asymmetry, of the awesome, the terrible and the vast. (http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/ruskin/atheories/3.1.html)
Ruskin was not convinced by Burke’s straightforward emphasis on terror or by his physiological reasons for feeling sublimity. On top of the fact that Ruskin no longer believed one could enjoy terror, he wanted to show that sublimity was a facet of beauty, thus uniting the two, and directly opposing Burke’s purely physiological explanations. Burke’s theory made beauty and sublimity dependent on physical causes, where Ruskin believed that “aesthetic reactions, which take place in the theoretic, or contemplative, faculty are primarily mental, not physical, in character.” (http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/ruskin/atheories/3.1.html)
Ruskin was a great admirer of J.M.W. Turner’s work, probably because his work exemplified many of the principles of the sublime Ruskin was so passionate about. In 1842 Ruskin went on a tour of Chamonix and noted on his way the rocks, flowers and effects of weather and alpine scenery. He had a moment of strong emotion where he lost himself in the power of a storm and truly began to understand the work of Turner. Ruskin’s own real experience of the power of nature proved to him that Turner recreated that beauty more truthfully than any other artist he knew, yet Turner was disdained by critics because they considered his vision to be fabricated. Ruskin then made it his mission with the publication of Modern Painters to both demonstrate the importance of the beauty that existed in the natural world and to prove that Turner expressed that importance. (Hewison, R., 1976, p32).
Figure 1 J.M.W. Turner – Snowstorm Exh. R.A. 1842. Oil on canvas, 91.5 x 122cm. Tate Gallery, London.
Snowstorm (1842) is probably Turner’s most sublime painting. It is an abstract composition, but clearly comes from a personal memory as indicated by the full title he gave the painting when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy: Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth making signals in shallow water and going by the lead. The author was in this storm on the night the Ariel left Harwich. (Walker, J., 1976, p135) Turner actually had himself tied to the mast of the ship during the four hours the storm continued for, and vowed to himself to record the event if he actually survived it.
The composition and rendering of Snowstorm is very different to any other seascape paintings that had been or were being produced up until the time of Turner, therefore it was met with much criticism, with one critic describing it as just a “mass of soapsuds and whitewash.”(Walker, J., 1976, p135). To this Turner reportedly responded, “Soapsuds and whitewash! What would they have? I wonder what they think the sea’s like! I wish they’d been in it!” (Walker, J., 1976, p135). The composition of this piece is quite abstract, yet the viewer can easily discern the subject of the painting, and more importantly gain a strong feeling of the storm from it. The sky is a whirl of dark and light and mirrors the turbulent swells of the ocean pounding the ship, the violent, sweeping brushstrokes adding to the sense of movement and ferocity. With this painting Turner “created a swirling, twisting, integrated whole, a composition that passes the limits of Baroque art in its sweeping, rhythmic movement.” (Walker, J., 1976, p135)
 
Figure 2 J.M.W. Turner – Cottage Destroyed by an Avalanche Exh. Turner’s Gallery 1810.                              Oil on canvas, 90 x 120cm. Tate Gallery, London.
Cottage Destroyed by an Avalanche (1810) is another sublime view of nature from the eyes and mind of Turner. In this painting we see the awesome power of nature utterly destroying the man-made cottage, another important theme of the sublime: nature’s dominance over the man-made and humankind in general. Rocks several times larger than the cottage hurtle through the air clearly about to demolish all in their path. Again Turner’s treatment of the paint adds as much feeling to the painting as the subject matter. His use of a palette knife in violent, slashing strokes corresponds with the violence of the avalanche, creating a noisy and tumultuous event with typically romantic expression. In Turner, John Walker relates the painting to the music of Beethoven:
“Turner, like Beethoven, uses every instrument in the orchestra to produce the thunderous, overwhelming impact of forces wildly out of all control.” (Walker, J., 1976, p 84)
Turner and the Sublime go hand in hand, and unfortunately it seems that much of his work is better appreciated today that in its own era (Hirsh, D., 1969, p 8). His lack of finish and tendency to eschew the ‘rules’ of landscape painting at the time meant that his work was often criticised as the workings of a mad man. However in hindsight we can see that he was one of the most influential painters in recent history, his influence can be seen in the work of the Impressionists and the American landscape painters and you can see the abstraction that was a precursor to Modernism in work that was truly ahead of its time.
REFERENCES
Images
Figure 1 Walker, J., 1976, Turner, Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York
Figure 2 http://art-bin.com/art/oruskin3.html
Books
Hewison, R., 1976, John Ruskin: the Argument of the Eye, Latimer Trend & Co. Ltd, Plymouth
Hirsh, D., 1969, The World of Turner, Time-Life Books Inc.
Walker, J., 1976, Turner, Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York
Internet
BIBIOGRAPHY
Books
Hewison, R., 1976, John Ruskin: the Argument of the Eye, Latimer Trend & Co. Ltd, Plymouth
Hirsh, D., 1969, The World of Turner, Time-Life Books Inc.
Walker, J., 1976, Turner, Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York
Internet
http://qualiajournal.blogspot.com/2009/09/sublime-in-turner.html