The Fighting Temeraire is one of the eighteenth century’s most recognizable paintings. It depicts the lithe, fading frame of the H.M.S. Temeraire, a naval ship that served England during the Napoleonic Wars, gliding across the still waters of the Thames. Wisps of periwinkle and cornflower dot the murky surface on which the Temeraire is towed (“to her last berth to be broken up,” as the painting’s subtitle indicates) by a squat steam tugboat, whose dark smokestack spits into an otherwise-ethereal sky. In the distance, sunlight, enrobed by clouds, reflects off the river. The painting has an elegiac quality: this, it suggests, is the end of an era.
The Fighting Temeraire is one of the paintings in “Turner’s Modern World,” which opened in the Tate Britain museum in London last year and is now on view at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, until February 6, 2022. The exhibition explores the artist Joseph Mallord William Turner’s relationship to early nineteenth-century Britain’s changing landscape, as the country underwent political reforms, an expanding empire, foreign wars, and the dawn of industrialization. The show features works from the painter’s whole career, starting in the 1790s and continuing to Turner’s iconic steam-power paintings of the 1840s. Throughout, the viewer gets a sense of Turner’s social intuition. He cared deeply about humans’ relationship with their changing environments, and the psychological and class toll of both catastrophe and development. (The last work on display was painted just four years before Marx wrote his Communist Manifesto.)
Turner was born in 1775 to a lower-middle-class family in London, where he would live all his life. After being recognized as a child prodigy, he studied at the Royal Academy of Arts, and exhibited his first work there at the age of fifteen. He worked as an architectural draftsman at the same time, and many of his early pieces were architectural sketches. To Turner, architecture was memory, and he was intent on capturing a shifting moment in Britain’s changing present. The art historian Simon Schama describes Turner as a transitional figure entranced by the tension between the uncertain industrialism of Britain arriving and the romantic grandeur of Britain past. In truth, Britain’s imperial past is neither as grand nor as past as some narratives tend to suggest. (I saw this show in London, just five days after a deportation flight of thirteen men who came to the UK from Jamaica as children.) In light of Britain’s post-Brexit political disarray, with British nationalists clinging to cherry-picked events in world history as proof of the nation’s former glory, Turner seems not just transitional but prophetic.