This work, The ‘Fighting Temeraire’ tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up, painted by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) in 1838-39, that was considered by the artist as his favorite, has also a special place in the heart of the British.
Joseph Mallord William Turner, The ‘Fighting Temeraire’ tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up, 1838-39, oil on canvas, 91 x 122 cm, National Gallery (London), inv. NG524
Image : Web Gallery of Art
This picture presents the Temeraire, a British war ship which participated to the victory of the English naval forces upon the French during the famous Trafalgar Battle in 1805. Thanks to its achievements, it gained an important fame among the British public. However she was dismantled in 1838 for economic reasons, and towed from Sheerness to Rotherhithe by two steam tugs. It is that moment that Turner chooses to represent, playing with symbols : the image of the modern steam tug, small and black, towing, thanks to steam power, the enormous war ship, old and whitish, highlights the new period when machines supplant old methods : the dawn of the industrial age.
Turner could easily identify himself to the Temeraire : this old ship may symbolize the first part of of the 63 year-old artist’s life, his youth, his successes, a particular painting manner. In 1838, Turner is already in the third phase of his work (from 1835 to 1845, according to the British art critic, John Ruskin (1819-1900), in Modern Painters, 1843), badly understood by the public of that time. So we can establish an obvious parallel between the old ship and the old artist : it is a metaphor of passing time, leading inevitably to death.
We can note some « mistakes » in the representation of this historical episode : the oversight of one of the two steam tugs, the presence of the masts, which had been removed, the ships going toward the east and not toward the west. We understand that the artist’s concern was not to represent the scene with realism, but to underline the sorry loss of the prestigious vessel.
The painting is divided into two parts : on the left, the group of ships with the moon in the background, on the right, the sun setting and a buoy against the light. The wanted parallelism is evident, the sunset symbolizes the end of the life of the Temeraire, the moon rising, still almost invisible, the beginning of a new age. Colors also divide the painting into two parts, with on one side blue and its derivative colors, on the other red and yellow also with their derivative colors.
Turner, who read Theory of colours written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) published in 1808, attached a particular importance to colors and their symbolism. We can see that here, where « positive » colors are overwhelmingly used to represent the glorious sun setting ; the Temeraire is « without colours », white, only enhanced with yellow, getting a ghostly aspect which contrasts with the black steam tug spitting out her smoke and looking malefic. As for « negative » colors, they are used in order to represent the moon.
Because it was so patriotic, this painting got a huge success at that time (the British disapproved of the decision to destroy their historical heritage for economic reasons). Critics said that it was the best work of the master, reproductions were made, engravings, even a song was composed. In 1876, the Royal Academy chose this work to figure on the other side of the medal made in the honour of Turner. Even the blazing color intensity, usually criticized, was judged appropriate. This painting was the last one made by Turner which, when displayed, really filled both the public and the critics with enthusiasm.
Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire, 1817, oil on canvas, 170 x 238 cm, Tate Gallery (London), inv. N00499
Image : Tate Gallery
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses writing the book of Genesis, 1843, oil on canvas, 78.7 x 78.7 cm, Tate Gallery (London), inv. N00532
Image : Tate Gallery
Then, the progressive dissolution of shapes in Turner’s works will go beyond the public understanding. His « whirlwind of colors » earned him a reputation of eccentricity and inaudibility, even of total madness. It is at that time that J. Ruskin stood up for the artist in his book, Modern Painters, allowing the public to discover, in a much better way than any exhibition or publication at that time, the last phase of Turner’s work. Nowadays, the painting is still acclaimed by the public, and was crowned « nicest work of the National Gallery » in 2005 by a competition set up by the B.B.C.
A major painting in Turner’s work and in British historical heritage, the Fighting Temeraire reminds us of heroic times but also the beginning of an age when England was to become the first world power ; but it especially puts forward an artist’s genius who, badly understood at the end of his life, inspired artists from the late ninetieth and early twentieth centuries, particularly the impressionist movement, and is nowadays famous all over the world.
Article : Therese Kempf – UPJV – L3 Histoire de l’art
Traduction : Therese Kempf (UPJV – L3 Histoire de l’art) et Jean-François Fournier UPJV – auditeur libre Histoire de l’art)
Article in french : The Fighting Temeraire (05/04/14)