On Turner and Impressionism

Hello, beloved readers.

I know I haven’t posted in a while, but I’ve been really busy, what with debate, quiz bowl, and cross country running. Anyway, I thought I would share a thought that’s been on my mind ever since I visited London’s National Gallery back in August. Before I start, however, I would like to point out that by no means should I be considered an art expert of any sort, and while it may not be my place to say this, I feel it must be said. Alright, here goes:

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines Impressionism as “a style of painting that began in France around 1870, that uses spots of color to show the effects of different kinds of light, and that attempts to capture the feeling of a scene rather than specific details”. However, when one takes into consideration many of the painters designated as Impressionists, such as Renoir, Manet, and even Degas, one all too often find their work lacking in the fundamental characteristics that define Impressionism. Take, for example, Degas’ L’Etoile, arguably one of his most famous works, the brushwork does very little to show the presence of light. The light depicted in the painting is devoid of a source, and any intended shadow is all but lost in the heavily blended areas surrounding the dancer and audience.

degas.etoile

L’Étoile

As another example, let us consider Renoir’s famed Luncheon of the Boating Party. While the usage of small brushstrokes to depict different types of light is more pronounced than in L’Étoile, very little has been done to depict the overall atmosphere of the scene. While it is obvious that the general temperament of the people depicted is a content one, the painting does not, in my opinion, elicit the necessary emotions that are necessary to be considered Impressionistic. In fact, there is so much attention to detail that this could easily be considered more Realistic than Impressionistic.

Luncheon of the Boa

Luncheon of the Boating Party

One must keep in mind that while Impressionism’s technical definition requires small brushstrokes that depict light, it should also draw out deep emotions, keeping in line with the paintings of its predecessor, the Romantic era. The greatest impressionist works, particularly those of Monet, do an exquisite job of maintaining technical accuracy while at the same time drawing out emotions that would be drawn out by their Romantic counterparts.

This brings me to my main point in writing this article- the misclassification of J.M.W Turner. A celebrated British artist, Turner is often credited as one of the great Romantic masters and a precursor to Impressionism. While his paintings definitely evoke the necessary emotions to be called Romantic, his paintings often do a better job of meeting Impressionism’s technical criteria than some of the most famous Impressionist pieces. As proof of this, one must look no further than his great masterpiece, The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to her last berth to be broken up, which hangs in the National Gallery and sparked the idea for this article in my head. Not only does Turner do an immaculate job of using shading and small brushstrokes to portray the golden glow that so often accompanies a sunset on a clear evening, the rosy tint of the sun as it slips below the horizon and the golden gleam it casts across the sky elicit deep-seated feelings of sadness and loss. Turner places great emphasis on the atmosphere of the piece, and does not bother with showcasing small details. The colors, especially around the horizon, are well-blended while still allowing for the right amount of shadow, and the juxtaposition between the elegant, graceful warship and the squat, ugly tugboat that is pulling it away emphasizes the quintessence of fame and the fragility of beauty by making it very clear that the Fighting Temeraire’s final destination is the scrap-heap.

The Fighting Temeraire

The Fighting Temeraire

However, this is not only evident in The Fighting Temeraire. A quick glance at most of his other paintings will reveal the same emphasis on light and evocation of emotion. The fact that when one takes a closer look, Turner tends to have more Impressionistic characteristics than other painters who have been confirmed as Impressionists, shows without a doubt that Turner is a grossly misclassified artist who should, in fact, be credited as the true father of Impressionism.

Best Wishes from Woodbury,

Pranay