During the industrial revolution, as steamships took over from sailing ships and machines replaced manpower, many areas of innovation and technology were taking place including discoveries in new art materials. Depending on one’s perspective this was the end, or the dawn, of a new era, with natural light about to be replaced by Edison’s electric light at the end of the 19th century, and it is in J.M.W. Turner’s paintings that we see the embers of this era merging with the new industrial age.
Until Turner and Constable, ‘history painting’ was regarded by the Academy as the superior genre in painting, with landscape painting taking a lesser value. Part of Turner’s legacy is in the way he utilised landscape and seascape, elevating them to a higher genre, and using painting as a platform to document the changes taking place in society at that time. Take for example The Fighting Temeraire, tugged to her last Berth to be broken up (1838) in which an older decommissioned ship is towed by a new steamship. Through this genre he was able to narrate aspects of technological, political and social reforms taking place in society, capturing, in particular, the magnificence of natural sunlight. So obsessed was Turner with his palette of bright whites and burning yellows that one critic even suggested he had “yellow fever”.
Paintings such as his famous The Fighting Temeraire, read ambiguously as a sunset or sunrise, reflecting the pivotal changes taking place. Frequently using Gamboge and King’s Yellow to capture sunlight in its many forms: as an ethereal quality, in its abundance, in its lack, as a vapour, and, as a physical quality soon to be replaced by the artificial rays of Edison. In Gombrich’s words, Turner “had visions of a fantastic world bathed in light and resplendent with beauty, but it was a world not of calm, but of movement, not of simple harmonies but of dazzling pageantries…”