“Timeless” always seems like a dirty word that removes the flesh from great artists and renders them almost inhuman. Abstract artists have long pointed back to J.M.W. Turner’s late work as a precursor of their own. Born April 23, 1775, Turner’s vivid skies may seem abstract, but they were based in factual observance of atmospheric effects. The weirdly yellow sky of Turner’s Chichester Canal (above, from 1828) may seem like a case of artistic license until you know about the 1816 "Year Without a Summer," when the eruption of Mount Tambora and several other volcanoes spewed enough volcanic ash into the atmosphere to block sunlight and lower temperatures worldwide. Even 12 years later, the effects of “The Year Without a Summer” could be seen. Sunsets must have been spectacular, so the next time you accuse Turner or any other artist of playing loose with the facts, make sure you know the facts. (A similar phenomenon is found in Edvard Munch’s The Scream, which features a blood red sky that seems impossible but actually does appear that way at times in Munch’s native Norway.)
Turner paid attention not only to events in nature but also events in human nature. The British abolitionist movement, led by William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, won a major battle in 1807 with the Slave Trade Act that abolished trading slaves in the British Empire itself but not owning slaves. Not until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 was slavery itself outlawed, so when Turner paints The Slave Ship (above) in 1840, slavery is still an issue weighing heavily on the minds of British and world citizens. Turner paints the moment at which the slave traders throw the dead or dying slaves overboard to be eaten by the sharks so that they can collect the insurance. A sea monster peeks out from the depths in the foreground of the picture to add a touch of unreality to this too tragically real event. The sky about the ship is red, perhaps still from the aftereffects of the worldwide volcanic winter of 1816, but more likely as a visual representation of the bloody acts presented. Turner most likely does take artistic license in that instance, but only to amplify the facts central to the painting.
By 1844, the effects of The Industrial Revolution were being felt throughout England fully. The bucolic world of Turner’s youth now found itself scarred by railway lines connecting cities and towns in a way unimaginable decades before. The speed of these trains, slow by today’s standards but breathtaking for Turner and his contemporaries, made their world seem a great deal smaller and stranger. Turner’s Rain, Steam, and Speed—The Great Western Railway (above, from 1844) captures the feeling of one of these trains intruding on the natural order Turner had observed and painted his whole life. John Ruskin, Turner’s greatest critical champion, rejected late works such as Rain, Steam, and Speed mostly for their abstract qualities but also for how they marked the changing of the guard from the golden age of Romanticism to the modern age of technology. Victorians such as Ruskin would later feel the full brunt of that change. Perhaps there is some “timeless” aspect to Turner in his use of color and brushwork, but the subject of those uses remains a tightly focuses vision of the world around him that was alive and ever-changing.