TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT May 1975

The Lord Nelson of Painting

Give me some mud off a city crossing, some ochre out of a gravef pit, a little whitening, and some coal dust, and I wiff paint you a luminous picture.
—Ruskin

TURNER WAS SAID TO HAVE once used stale beer in his paint vehicle. A hostile witness at a varnishing day in 1834 (but there were sympathizers there too), noticed that the artist was “rolling and spreading a lump of half-transparent stuff over his picture.” No one had courage enough to ask him what it was. Studio lore aside, his contemporaries lavished, when they wanted, some vivid insults on the substance of his paintings. What had been wrought by his “hog tools” they called at different times “dirty putty,” “chalk,” “brimestone and cayenne,” “eggs and spinach,” “stagnant sulphur,” and, of course, the famous “soapsuds and whitewash.” In short, his gorgeous vision could be seen as made of hash and swill. But already in 1816 Hazlitt quoted someone who had quite otherwise observed that Turner’s landscapes were “pictures of nothing, and very like.” Nowadays these disparaging comments, all but the Hazlitt, are taken to be philistine literalism.

It is assumed that viewers profaned the allusive tissue of his surfaces because, as we would say, Turner was too “reductive” for them. If we no longer quite perceive what made his results look indigestible, then Turner criticism must surely have overestimated his representational aims. According to present repute, the literature brims with an obtuse satire, though a closer look reveals it was often an almost fumblingly adoring literature, despite its satire. For instance, though often thought brutish, Turner’s works were also praised for their extreme delicacy. What accounts, then, for this ambivalence? And why does the “nothing, and very like” remark appear to strike home more positively than it was doubtless meant?

It can hardly be stated that the artist’s motley critics were literal in characterizing what they saw, for they were invoking an effect, not describing a property. People knew they were examining paint, and they talked about the way it was handled—mingled, thinned, rubbed, scraped, encrusted, glazed, scumbled, trowelled, etc. Of Turner’s pictorial artifices they were acutely aware, and they reacted strongly in proportion to his increasing desire to make these artifices an issue during the long maturity of his career. Here was an artist correctly judged to have been impassioned of the lighted infinities of space. But time and again after 1825, that valedictory space conjured up images of wrong ingredients rather too available to touch and taste. When Gainsborough’s trees were referred to as “fried parsley,” it was a complaint about an artist’s fag-end loyalty to a convention that had been ceased being credible. With Turner, on the contrary, the effort seemed to be to obliterate any schemata that would make his prevailing moods intelligible.

Nor was the artist himself much help, being at the same time mute in explaining his procedures to friends or students, and yet prolix with symbolic and poetic glosses tagged on to vaporous tableaux. Still, the works he publicly retouched before official opening were seen to have been very sorry daubs that he magically transformed. By sharpening embryonic contrasts (in person),he worked to gain tolerance for the controversially low states of definition that he actually desired.

From his vantage, it must have been satisfactory to have acquainted spectators with the high degree to which he was process oriented. And it could well have occurred to him to analogize his own generative urging on of the pigment with the forces of nature, transmuting the very elements themselves, which he surely wanted to represent, but also to incarnate. A link exists between evidence that he interpreted some classical myths in alchemical terms and the fact that among his drawings, the erotic subjects are more than usually smudged by the artist’s fingers. Base matter was to be catalyzed into an ineffable, rare compound, and yet retain all its fascination as palpably marked and kneaded substance. Small wonder, then, that it gave rise to a bifocal reception. You could only empathize with the immaterial loftiness of his statement by assimilating the physically obtrusive utterance within it.

For good reasons, Turner’s art made this, for us normal pictorial experience, very problematical. So pronounced were the tactile features of his oils, the evident narcissism of his touches, that his depicted world appeared to be sopped up into them. In 1801, Uvedale Price had anticipated an abstract enjoyment of paintings on this very basis but only to reject it as foreign to English habits of seeing. And a few lines above the Hazlitt I quoted, one reads of a Turner “whose pictures are . . too much abstractions of aerial perspective and representations not properly of the objects of nature as of the medium through which they were seen.” In other words, the criticism had to do with a high ratio of expectation to experience. But this aerial envelope was precisely the region he wanted to materialize, or better, to possess and make his own, without recourse to any theory of the imagination whatsoever. While Crabb Robinson could say “But we know Dieppe . . . and can’t easily clothe it in such faery hues,” Turner conceived the painter very stereotypically as “admiring Nature by the power and practicability of his Art, and judging of his Art by the perceptions drawn from Nature.”

Obviously, if viewers were not looking at, or thinking of, the same aspects of nature as the painter, they might consider his “power” to be misdirected. With its love of gossamer instability, much in the anticlassic taste of the English was receptive to Turner’s bodiless heavens, their degravitized space. Additionally, for decades Romantic personifications of nature were a celebrated impetus of painting and poetry. But this artist appeared to seek in them a harmony between his emotion and his paint before having established that there was any outside subject to which paint had to refer. Pictorial means and ends looked unconnected, derelict. And his art came almost to seem literally dissociated. The flaw that nagged in the experience of his late pictures was often described, for that reason, I think, in terms of the ridiculous.

Being trifled with in this way could not have been very amusing, but it did not inhibit Turner’s ambition to be a history painter. With him, earthly history—the history even of whole epochs and races—was to be fetched through his excited, private sensations. Drawn to all moments of barometric stress and atmospheric convulsion, he cultivated an image of nature in extremis. To be out, open and exposed in such moments was to endanger oneself; to render them for others was to raise feelings of peril in their hearts. On several occasions, Turner came deliberately close to it, lashed to a shipmast in a boiling ocean, or overturning in a coach up a forbidden pass on a snow-bound mountain. He would have his detractors believe that engendered within all his improbable mists and gauzy swirls was more than a memory of what he himself had gone through. Many of his later “radical” paintings, in fact, were attempts at precise evocation of confused natural phenomena.

When dust is sifted off into the air, or when spray sparkles everywhere in it, there emerges Turner’s preferred moment. For not only is the horizon obscured, but differing forms of matter are shown yielding their particles to an homogenized flow. Languid or rapid, colored extravagantly or bleached by light refracting through it at abnormal angles, this flow is highly theatrical. But unlike staged drama, the theater gyrated on canvas by Turner was observed from unposed conditions, occurring in the raw. Still, whatever their natural origins, his painted froths have no name. Even described sympathetically, as when Constable called them “tinted steam,” they embarrass language. Or rather, they trip up epithets and metaphors in chronically tempting our effort to summon metaphor as a way of dealing with them. No matter what one calls his pictorial masses, the paint in them insists that they are something else. One-third the library of this professor of perspective was devoted to scientific works—on optics, the physics of color, etc. The fact reveals that it was not only the dreamy licenses of his style, but a rationalized and objectivecuriosity that powered his form. And, of course, there exist thousands of on-the-spot pencil memoranda and smattering watercolors upon which his inexplicable vision is grounded. From them, landscape was perpetually transformed, over shorter or longer intervals of time, into events.

In 1966, The Museum of Modern Art presented a show called “Turner: Imagination and Reality,” which concentrated on the artist’s late period, whose issues I’ve pointed to above. The date and the editorial frame are significant because the affair was justified as pertinent to recent developments in American abstract painting. So, in the catalogue, Lawrence Gowing, then keeper of British paintings at the Tate, referred to Motherwell’s judgment of the “tragic quality in Turner’s art, which painting seeks now.” Gowing’s coordinate was Action Painting instead of the much more topical spilled or sprayed color abstraction of the ’60s. This writer honored Turner as an English precursor of an imperial American style. No such streamlined aim appears to have been in the minds of the organizers of this year’s Royal Academy exhibition commemorating the 200th anniversary of the artist’s birth. The mass of Turner studies taken together has yet to give us as a full a picture of his career as this occasion at Burlington House. Comprising 703 items (with memorabilia), and accompanied by a highly detailed catalogue, the show had an affectionate redundancy that could only have stemmed from pride in Turner’s rank as Britain’s most illustrious artist. He was toasted in London as a producer of glorious, home-fashioned antiques, and hundreds of supporting curios. Here was a copious, sweeping figure, a Lord Nelson of painting, whose status the dowdy and overcrowded installation actually corroborated.

He was born, the son of a Covent Garden barber, the year of the skirmish at Concord, and was buried in St. Paul’s, shortly after they opened the Crystal Palace of 1851. His own productivity, and the transformations it went through, match those of his era. Could it have been Turner’s plebian origins, his imperfect, grubby apprenticeship, the inadequacies of his education and lack of social grace that spurred in him such a rapacious consumption of prestige styles in landscape that even when he liberated himself from such stylistic models, he painted yet with a stupefying diligence, driven by a work ethic so utterly craft-grounded as to open up all possible imaginative space between himself and gentlemanly amateurism? When he said that indistinctness was his forte, he could not ever have wished it to be believed that he had aristocratically low resources or energy. Constable practiced two styles, the sketchy one for himself, and the other, laboriously finished, for offi- cial showing. Turner, with his simultaneous and consecutive manners, kept the bulk of his later paintings. But he hedged against economic difficulties through unremitting business as a supplier for landscape engravings of cherished English views. They were distributed in the thousands, made his popular reputation, and brought him a fortune.

Surface finish was an affair about which few ambitious English painters had any integrated or systematic attitude. As their audience changed from the old landed gentry to a new, affluent, mercantile class, with its uncertain esthetic mercies and its nationalism based on industrial advantages requiring a maximized free trade, artists floundered between two sets of values. They had neither a consistent program nor a secure constituency. With outstanding achievements as an eclectic in approved modes, Turner became a Royal Academician at the early age of twenty-seven, thus ensuring himself a privileged exposure of his work. At the same time, he became the butt of the conservative factions that dominated that club and its audience, not only because he used his position to advance his unorthodox artisticperformance, but through class bias as well. We hear of recriminations against his hoarded wealth, as if his gains on that side rendered him automatically a coarse spirit. (And it’s significant that critical expletives used against him recall a Cockney environment.) In 1835, they knighted Calcott, a weak imitator of his, when the master himself was the signal candidate for the honor. The English establishment treated its great painters badly in any case, the more so if they demonstrated any appeal to the middle classes, let alone the lower ones.

Yet the R.A. was a flexible meritocracy, and there was confusion, even a great deal of overlap, of taste between various social strata, which Turner’s art spanned. The pen manufacturer Joseph Gillott, an active Turner patron in the ’40s, would not have objected to the sympathies of his predecessor of the ’20s and ’30s, the benign Lord Egremont, at whose house, Petworth, the artist created some of his most “difficult” works. On the other hand, Sir George Beaumont had the most sensitive radar of any foe, for he began to swipe at Turner, the rebel in the establishment, from the very early 1800 s on. If he objected to the lack of brown in Turner’s paintings, he must also have sensed the brightening dynamism in society at large, to which the artist was responding. But such dynamism also acted to temper political dissent and class antagonisms, even if this was only worked out through the gradualist policy of governments under continual pressure. The middle classes, indispensable managers of industrial order, were best placed to articulate social pressure, and they won increasing freedom to seek wealth through the new media of factory and machinery, railway and steamship.

Turner was an artistic entrepreneur who rose within this mobile situation. He sometimes glorified the new modes of transport developed by his clientele, through images of distant power glimpsed within epic weather (Staffa; Fingals Cave). In a word, he could associate material progress with the older tradition of the sublime. It cannot be judged, even now, whether he modernized that tradition or was vestigially captive to it (especially during the last 20 years of his life when he dimmed more and more out of fashion). This ambiguity, so forcible a part of his outlook, was not likely to be intentional. Many were recruited or attuned to it as symbolic vision. There was given to them, not the heroically rural Stour Valley or Dedham Vale of Constable, but a demonic pastoral, haunting to an urban age that had long since ceased to be the specifically agricultural environment it was at Turner’s birth.

From the uneasy sympathies he touched on so broad a front, he derived fame and rewards, but not that judicious criticism which would have needed to be as adventurous as his own work. Despite a few enthusiastic pages by Thackeray, this only came to him posthumously, in a flood of extremely warm-blooded endorsement written by a wine merchant’s son turned esthete, John Ruskin. With its advantage in historical retrospection and its expanding self-consciousness, that tasted danger in every opportunity opened up by the machine, Ruskin’s was the first generation that could size up the achievements of Turner’s. But the critic projected back upon the artist a more theistic worship of nature, and a more cautionary morality than is perhaps warranted by his actual record. And if Ruskin finally made sense of Turner’s ultra-sensuality, he was not fully alert to his nationalism, though he himself shared it. We have a hint of this sentiment even in Turner’s will. He bequeathed a large part of his monetary estate to found an almshouse for “decayed” English artists. As for his works, the old bachelor left all the many he possessed as his patrimony to the state, to be housed in a special Turner Gallery.

A most urgent problem faced by English painters of the late 18th century was not solely to achieve an artistic identity, but to gather it in as British artists. In no other art or science had the main native accomplishments for centuries been the work of foreigners. Within the last 60 years, however, Reynolds, Romney, Gainsborough, and Wilson had brought off fine local variants of a pan-European dynastic tradition in portraiture and classic landscape. Hogarth, Gillray, Rowlandson, Stubbs, and Wright, on the other hand, partook of a far more regionalist, not to say demotic, sensibility, whose themes were politics, moral instruction, and scientific progress.

The water and bodycolors that young Turner executed celebrated English monuments and ruins. Worked up elaborately from a pencil sketch, The Interior of Salisbury Cathedral was commissioned to illustrate a history of Wiltshire. If we take it and hundreds of his/others’ topographical watercolors as exemplary of a moment in national consciousness, we might place it somewhere between the two currents I mentioned above. While executed for public consumption, the paintings depicted Sites of ancient power as marvelous, quaint spectacles. The eye could linger fondly upon their lapidary details. For the nobility itself, artists like Turner were sometimes employed along similar lines to render generalized portraits of its country manors and their parks. To be plainer about it, art here eulogized property in a slightly rude though arcadian manner, thought appropriate for drawing room walls (Plompton Rocks, c. 1798, painted for the Earl of Harewood). These forms of patronage stimulated considerable artistic movement around the countryside, and if it was whetted also by Gothic delight in picturesque settings, England itself was thought valuable for being seen to abound in them. Such proto-romantic sentiment, with its stratified social functions, was to be tousled by an embattled national mood during the Napoleonic wars. After the very early death of Girtin, his only likely competitor, it fell to Turner preeminently to blend its dissonant impulses by a style in hopeful accord with the quixotic ideal of transcending all class interests. At one level, Romanticism would appeal to human solidarity across the genres, across the various arts, and finally, across geographical borders.

Turner had a patriotic side, sometimes aligned with ruling propaganda, sometimes in allegorical criticism of it. I should add immediately, however, that his most characteristic exaltations of struggle imply the puniness of all political and military belligerence, on an agreeably international plane. He painted Windsor Castle, nevertheless, and two versions of the battle of Trafalgar, the first of which was based on interviews with sailors and studies of the Victory, Nelson’s ship, upon its return from the fray. Further than that, his large England: Richmond Hill, on the Prince Regent’s Birthday, 1819, as well as George IV at a Banquet in Edinburgh, are positively jingoistic.

But these are untypical episodes compared with the prevalence in his work up to 1820, of marines that perhaps only an English artist could have infused with such volatility. In this period belong Ships Bearing up for Anchorage, Calais Pier, The Deluge, and several assorted shipwrecks. All the anguish that Géricault studied in the terrorized attitudes of The Raft of the Medusa expressed itself earlier in Turner’s waves, with a far freer tumult that convinces also as sheer observation. The stomach leaving yawns, lowering weights, and heaves of these seas, with their hydraulic, wind-quickened menaces, are impressed upon us as by one who knew the fate of his country depended upon control of them. First Rate Taking in Stores, 1818, a watercolor done to show a rural host “the size of a man-of-war,” also reveals a keen homage to naval power. The rise of the British navy, despite ill-trained officers and mutinous crews, peaked a good deal before 1815, thereafter declining with the threat of invasion. There were still many storm-lacerated and sanguinary waters ahead in Turner’s future work. But none exhibit the brine-filled treachery that would quite so well suck in the one who ventured, even visually, upon them.

None of this, in itself, had anything to do with Turner’s outstanding problem: forging a pictorial sensibility of his own. Neither the subjects nor the “nature-philosophy” of his works, however characterful, were in the least original with him. The same could be said, emphatically, for his form. Long walls and whole front rooms of Burlington House were covered with paintings of a most bewildering eclecticism. Next to a Claude Lorrain of 1819 there may have been a Rosa, a Cuyp, a Poussin, a Titian landscape, a Wilkie, or reasonable facsimiles thereof, all brushed by the same hand, and signed with the same name. A scavenging, fustian mind would appear to have conceived them. On first scanning, you might damn Turner as an artist who programmatically backed away from both authentic expression and contemporary reality.

But suppose they could be judged in context somewhat differently. In feeling, for instance, they resemble far more the efforts of a transcriber than a pasticheur. His loyalty to these sources was not merely unfeigned, it was so intensified as to raise their pitch and carry them to extremes their own audience might not have allowed. Turner’s, for that matter, tended to object to a certain liberty he would take with his models—a chromatic passage here, a dissolving form there—rather than to the fact that he had rehabilitated them at a late date. We can underestimate the public desire for artistic continuity. His biographer, Lindsay, speaks at great length of Turner as being fundamentally insecure. The condition is strongly inferred to have been brought on by a traumatic experience of his young manhood: the home-wrecking schizophrenia and death of his mother. Lindsay uses this thesis to account to some extent for Turner’s hard drive to accumulate capital and his rather tight ways with money. And the idea is carried over to explain the remarkably uneconomical artistic career of one who, up almost to age fifty, consolidated his repute on the basis of idioms lifted wholesale from long dead masters.

Yet, if Turner stocked his pictorial inventory to the roof with 17th-century landscape chiaroscuro and structure, it was because he felt himself to be in desperate competition with them. Nowhere else in England, or in Paris, the art center of the epoch, or on his repeated trips to the Continent, did he find more appropriate materials upon which to firm a grand manner of the 19th century. Numerous colleagues painted fantasias, sometimes consciously, embodying their sense of historical dislocation—the Grand Canal winding up to St. Paul’s. But there is no evident incongruity in the R.A.’s Crossing the Brook, 1815, described in the catalogue as a highly Italianate, Claudian landscape stemming from notes taken in Devon! To Claude’s filmy nostalgia, with its elegant repoussoirs and translucent parsley relieved against a wan sunlight, the British artist contributed a mood even more remote and vicarious. He had not been to Rome or Italy and he had traduced Devon. Still, he looked upon Claude with the same fervor that David had studied Caravaggio. In both cases, the message transmitted had far more to do with moral values than with techniques of representation. Those of his English predecessors who had made the Grand Tour, say a half-century before, were discovering a historical past to which they fitted a classic style, filtered through Rococo grace. It was truly disjunctive behavior on Turner’s part to continue their rehearsals. I refer to his pronounced Northern outlook, its cold, transparent filigrees, its ecstatic openness. The Mediterranean, viewed through how many scrims, nevertheless seemed to him a metaphor by which all civilizations could be transfused with a loveliness that was also vain. If he adopted the styles of earlier men who had been lured by it, this might well have been to reinforce his wrathful scenes. In the magnificent Snowstorm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps, 1812, he appended from his long poem, “The Fallacies of Hope” a warning: “Capua’s joys beware!”

We have, then, at this stage a formidable conservative who begins to imagine the drift of all cultures from their locales and the interchangeability of their destinies. He may have been indifferent to historical particulars, but that did not lessen his will to play on historical analogies. Africans tormented in the Alps: this subject would have had special relevance in the year the Grande Armée was freezing in Russia. And yet the storm that dazes the Carthaginians had been hinted at two years before by one Turner had seen over Yorkshire. Of two literary sources among many, the Biblical Apocalypse was not used as specifically as the Aeniad, but the sense of it provided more powerful occasions for his form. The brown silver funnels of the Hannibal cleave space assymetrically, energizing the upper margins through their helical scheme. His wide-angle view of things is thoroughly established in it. But while the centered material dilates in elliptical fashion, so too does his hold over the subject. Turner becomes the master of transposition, almost musically as it seems, the better to orchestrate his own dislocations, emotional and stylistic.

Upon his first trip to Italy and Rome, in 1819, something unexpected happened. On one hand, fluid progress was experienced in watercolors, especially of Venice. In contact with the opalescent light and bounced reflections of the lagoons, his eye impelled on the most exploratory yet delicate harmonies. On the other hand, Rome was summoned up in three large oil subject-matter paintings, one of which, the grand Rome from the Vatican. Raffaelle, Accompanied by La Fornarina, is a retrograde step and outstanding fiasco. In it, the artist makes one of his departures from the sublimation of human conflict into nature, proposing instead, figures in an architectural setting that were intended to set forth a complex argument. The Renaissance couple is shown fondling suspiciously Turneresque canvases on a balcony embraced by Bernini’s 17th-century colonnades. Appreciated newly as a landscapist by the early 19th century, Raphael was being appropriated into a lineage climaxed by Turner, the Renaissance figure of his time. It is almost as if, by doing homage to Raphael, the English artist wanted the Eternal City in turn to acknowledge the debt it owed him in perpetuating the memory of its ancient campagna. Not merely are the figures puppetlike, but the historical reflection is blatantly self-serving. An allegory, for once in his career, had become too specific, and therefore emphatically false, a lifeless masquerade.

I do not think that the optimistic mode was necessarily uncongenial to him. But I do suspect that the mythology of Rome he had cultivated for so long at a distance was too fragile to stand up to the actual, wrenching experience of it. For reasons of his own artistic personality, Turner could not use the place and drew a blank. How much this contrasts with the revelation of Delacroix, also an artist of longing, who 13 years later discovered the grace of the ancients in the living cultures of North Africa. Years afterward, remembering Turner on a visit to his Paris studio in 1835, Delacroix thought him a short, ungainly old party, dressed in bumpkin black like an English farmer. But that was way after the farmer had spun off into an unheard-of chromatic refinement, renewing himself in Venice as the French school did in Islam.

Watercolor was known in the early 1800s as the artistic mode anglaise. Ruskin had noted the quite artificial color usage in Turner’s early practice of it. So, for example, rocks in the foreground might be painted rich brown while the distance would be washed in cool gray—not in emulation of what the eye saw (say cool gray and gold), but as a coordinated scheme for marking discrete zones in space. The penciled boundaries of the forms and their uniform transparencies kept the tinted harmonies even throughout—and tame. But now, in Venice, the artist became enchanted with effects that are in themselves aqueous. The presoaked page takes from the sable tip some color that floats and thins it across the decreasing moisture of its surface, trailing off at the last humid stretches. And this becomes sufficient in itself. I mean that the furred calligraphy of a cloud or a touch of color in a sail are shown as perishable impressions which are, by their nature, optically completed for us by scanty means. Though it had been tending to give way for some years in his work, an edge-meeting structure now hastens to dissolve itself within the crepuscular radiance of Venice. And no matter how small the sheet itself, there is always room in it to insinuate, by shrinkage of the motif, an opulent space that makes one forget the actual vignetting of the imagery. Color debouches into this internal scaling, so that it, too, partakes of an auroral sweep. Everything now becomes incalculable, buoyant—matter itself burned off in a luminous haze that is actually of an extreme optical faintness. But even in this range, the motility of these hues—reds, blues, yellows, violets—is something to conjure with. In them, too, the fresh palette of Veronese and Raphael echoes as beautiful but entirely transubstantiated memories.

However much time it took, this precarious light came to filtrate back into Turner’s oils. But the oil medium, with its viscous and pastelike body, was not to be sacrificed all the way to the necessary dilutions of water. There occurred in the ’30s an increasing number of canvases which, situationally or not, put motifs into an exquisitely corrosive solvent of light. Yet, material in them, if half drained away, also coagulates and spackles unevenly over the surface, in the same high keyed value, but on top of the light. The Goncourts, writing of a fake Turner in this mode, said that it “might have been painted by Rembrandt had he been born in India.” But The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Night, Rain, Steam, and Speed, the snowstorm pictures, and Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, 1840—that prompted remarks about Turner’s “yellow insanity”—all these derive naturally from the Venetian connection. Even the Petworth interiors, scenes otherwise of unexceptionable domesticity in their genteel, cultured privilege, are made ghostly by it.

Obviously, subject and form are here very dissociated, but with such fierce deliberateness that one is swept up in reinterpreting the emotional possibilities of the new amalgam. Behind them, during a certain later phase in the ’40s, one begins to sense, sometimes overtly, as in Death on a Pale Horse, and subtly in the chimerical smears, white ferment, and pale blotchy grotesqueries of Festive Lagoon Scene, a demonic chorus that was to have impressed Ensor and Moreau in another epoch. This was evidently a virulent old age style. In a Rede lecture of 1972, Kenneth Clark discussed some of its generic features: a hermetic isolation, a holy rage about life and creative power, mistrust of reason, accumulation of indecipherable symbols, and an astonishing vitality and freedom of touch. The grand manner (comprising the sublime and the picturesque), had been transformed by this recluse into an almost horrific version of itself that ravished the senses.

Ambivalence, heightened into a principle, underlay Turner’s mature career and perhaps much of his life. It would not have been conceived that such euphoric pessimism could have been drawn from the Claudian mode. One imagines that the sensuality it apostrophized might have been fancied as ruinous by one too guilty in the enjoyment of it. No less thinkable was it that such a publicly worn-out morphology could have yielded such a privately expressive afterlife. The accumulation of borrowed styles crests at some point in his activity and is then followed by a progressive de-defining of sources. And how are we to rationalize the work of an artist capable of materializing the body language of clouds? Though not a radical, Turner was a libertarian and already in 1814 allegorized the cause of Greek independence from the Turks—but his allegories were of necessity indirect and noninstrumental. What he could project from them at their best, as in The Fighting Temeraire, was a kind of symbolic holding of the breath as the industrial order took over. Yet he was the prime player of the role of the artist who “goes too far”—and he was loved for it. He agreed with the Goethe he studied that “Colors are the deeds and sufferings of light,” but succeeded in becoming most eloquent, perhaps, in his crotchety whiteness. From the gravel pit and coal dust, or so it might have seemed, he transformed material into precious flares and rare glows. In the same passage I referred to earlier, Hazlitt also wrote of Turner’s paintings: “They are pictures of the elements of air, earth and water. The artist delights to go back to the first chaos of the world [where] as yet no living thing nor tree bearing fruit was seen upon the face of the earth.” It is rather strange that Hazlitt was talking about the Claudian Crossing the Brook. And it is stranger still that Turner’s primordial vision should seem to us to occur, or really to come into view, after the death of so many civilizations.