JMW Turner and the Sublime

Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon's coming
Before it seeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying - ne'er heed their chains
Hope, hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?
             JMW Turner (1812)

The master of sublime was born on this day in 1775. Joseph Mallord William Turner was an English painter of the Romantic style, and is well known for his landscape paintings in which he captures the sublime.

Sublime, according to Irish philosopher Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) is a concept which instills fascination mixed with fear when one is in the presence of something larger than oneself. Sublime evokes the power of God and of nature. Turner was a master of instilling his paintings with this concept of sublime – reflecting the British Romantic interest in the awe-inspiring power of nature.

In The Slave Ship (1840), one of his most celebrated paintings, Turner evokes sublime both through the power of nature as seen in the powerful and turbulent ocean and the impending typhoon, and the power of God who is all powerful and sees all of man’s deeds. The shipowner has just emptied a number of sick and old slaves into the ocean for the purpose of collecting insurance for lost cargo, but as the ship moves further into the ocean the typhoon may drown the ship – such is the indiscriminate power of nature that renders all men helpless in its wake.

Here, we are in the presence of an all-powerful, angry, and disapproving God, the bright and fierce sunshine is symbolic of an angry God who will dole out justice to the slave owner when he sails his ship into a typhoon. As a viewer we are left in awe – fearful and inspired in equal measure by the emotions Turner evokes in this painting.

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