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.

J.M.W. Turner, ‘Rain, Steam and Speed,’ 1844 (World History Archive/Alamy Stock Photo)

Each of the exhibition’s eight rooms reveals a different facet of the artist’s creative output. In “War and Peace,” theatrical history paintings document major battles. In “Modern Thought,” humble sketches of crumbling ruins alternate with paintings of new architectural feats. The “Home Front” features images of quintessentially British landscapes, like the view of London from Greenwich Park, featuring livestock, neoclassical buildings, and the shimmering Thames.

Disaster paintings make up the first part of Turner’s oeuvre: these monumental images express the artist’s fascination with spectacle. Yet amid the drama of cannon fire and naval wreckage, Turner also depicts quiet moments of heroism—as in The Battle of Trafalgar, where emergency rafts show men comforting one another. We see one man using all his might to pull another aboard against a backdrop of billowing sails and torrential seas.

Understated acts of human compassion are dwarfed, however, by Turner’s emphasis on the tragedy of war. In The Field of Waterloo, piles of bodies—British, Prussian, and French—lie under a black sky with an electric moon. Women, some with children, traverse the battleground with torches, searching for fathers and husbands. Turner, who visited the site two years after the battle, took inspiration from Byron’s verse on Waterloo: “Friend, foe, in one red burial blent.”  

Other works document both advances in machinery and the plight of laborers, suggesting a longing for simpler times. In Ploughing up Turnips, near Slough, a rustic, sepia painting of the Arcadian English countryside, a man repairs a broken plough while a woman bends over to pick turnips. Turner appears to sympathize with the unromantic struggle of their labor, anticipating the social realism of later artists like Gustave Courbet.

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In his personal life, Turner was private and reclusive, known for a mercurial temperament and eccentric mannerisms. He resented not having been knighted by Queen Victoria, and later withdrew contact from nearly everyone except his father. Though he received great professional acclaim, he remained an enigma in the public eye—known for stunts like rowing his boat out into the Thames to avoid being counted as present at any property during the census.

Though Turner’s work is steeped in a tradition of British nationalism, there is something universal to it—a sense of watchful uncertainty as the world approaches a new junction. His art evinces both wistful nostalgia and horror at the human capacity for tragedy, but Turner also left room for traces of hope. His interest in the conditions of contemporary life was ambivalent rather than pessimistic, but his fascination with the ephemerality of nature and the hubris of human efforts to attain permanence can appear almost moralizing.

Though he received great professional acclaim, Turner remained an enigma in the public eye.

This quality is most apparent in Turner’s close attention to the changing environment and to the impact of industrialization on the human psyche. His most unsettling works register an era of upheaval born of social and technological developments. They bring to mind Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history”: “The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.” In Turner’s steam paintings, where billowing smokestacks pollute watery skies, progress appears as nothing short of an unshakeable storm. The works serve as visual logs of the beginning of the “Anthropocene” (or what some call the “Capitalocene”—since it is really capitalism, rather than the human race as such, that is behind so much ecological degradation). In Turner’s time, Britain was the leading emitter of carbon dioxide. In his paintings we see steamboats chug across rivers blackened with soot trails. In dusk paintings, explosive hues of orange and brilliant reds reflect off glistening waters. These are sometimes read as odes to Britain’s great natural beauty, but Turner, who was fascinated by scientific discoveries, might have known that the exceptional brilliance of the sunsets he witnessed was caused by the refraction of sunlight through pollution particles.

Turner’s paintings were of great interest to the critic John Ruskin, who memorialized the artist’s prescience in his book Modern Painters. On my walk to the Tate Britain to see the Turner exhibition, I passed Finsbury Circus, where Ruskin delivered a series of apocalyptic lectures later published as “The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century.” Clouds that “bore traces of iniquity” and winds infected by “bitterness and malice” dotted the skyline of modern life. But neither Turner nor Ruskin lost a sense of optimism in the power of the individual to resist all that iniquity and malice. At the end of his lecture series, Ruskin reminded his audience, “Whether you can affect the signs of the sky or not, you can the signs of the times. Whether you can bring the sun back or not, you can assuredly bring back your own cheerfulness, and your own honesty.... And all that it would be extremely well to do, even though the day were coming when the sun should be as darkness, and the moon as blood.”

Admittedly, certain of Turner’s contemporaries—for example, William Blake—offered much more overt political critiques than he did. Turner was a thoughtful observer of a changing moment, liberal and humane, but he was never really an activist. Nor was he faultless: he invested in a Jamaican cattle ranch worked by slaves in 1805. But as this exhibition progresses, a clear political message emerges from all the fog and soot. By the 1840s, Turner’s work was explicitly critiquing the barbarity of indentured labor. Take The Slave Ship, for example. At first glance, the painting possesses qualities similar to other Turner sunsets: fiery skies, angry light casting upon tumultuous waters as a ship’s mast dots the horizon. But on closer inspection, one finds Black hands protruding from the rocky sea, and the grisly horror of sharks devouring bodies cast overboard. Turner painted this picture only a few years after Britain had abolished the slave trade. When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1840, its political message would have been unmissable: it forced a privileged class of viewers to reckon with their country’s bloody legacy.

As I stood, near the end of the show, looking at one of Turner’s later paintings, Rain, Steam, and Speed, I felt the dizziness of a violent summer storm, along with the headlong rush of the train cutting through it. But there is another, often-overlooked dimension to this painting: the open third-class carriages at the front of the train have left the poorest passengers most vulnerable to the elements. All of us must grapple with the legacies of slavery and imperialism, with increasingly dystopian technologies and the terrifying onslaught of climate change, but we don’t all feel the effects of these things equally. When the storm clouds of modern life break, some are always more exposed than others. This may not be the first thing you see in this painting, but it is nevertheless there to be seen if you look carefully. As so often in Turner’s work, the natural world shouts for the viewer’s attention while the social whispers its secret. 

Nicole-Ann Lobo, a PhD student at Princeton University, was Commonweal''s 2019 John Garvey Writing Fellow. She currently helps organize the Democratic Socialists of America’s Religion and Socialism Working Group and lives in New Jersey.

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Published in the November 2021 issue: View Contents
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