In terms of famous ship paintings, it doesn’t get more iconic than J.M.W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire. Painted in 1839, it depicts the final journey of the Temeraire.
Amongst J.M.W. Turner paintings, The Fighting Temeraire is particularly symbolic. Turner painted the work to depict the ship (and British naval superiority) in a historic and nostalgic light.
For this reason, he painted the three lower masts partly rigged, with their sails furled. In reality, the ship’s masts were removed by this point. Turner also painted the ship in white and gold (as opposed to the real black and yellow) to provide it with a serene, ghostly presence.
Adding to the narrative, Turner’s crimson sunset (at the right-hand side of the painting) suggests death followed by transition; illustrated by a fiery sunsets, the crescent moon rises at the top-left corner of the painting.
To heighten the drama of the piece, the tug’s funnel sits (incorrectly) in front of the mast. This allowed the long plume of dark, sooty smoke to blow towards the Temeraire. The contrast of steam overtaking sail brings a particular poignancy to the painting, symbolizing the inexorable advance of the Industrial Revolution.
Despite this, Turner was not directly critical of the Industrial Steam Age. He frequently painted modern subjects with pride and care, most notably in Rain Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway (1844).
The Fighting Temeraire painting shows the great ship towed by a paddle-wheel steam tug. It depicts Sheerness in Kent, with the two ships making their way along the river Thames. Their ultimate destination is Rotherhithe in South-East London.
It’s unlikely Turner witnessed this exact scene, however. In fact, he may not have even been in Great Britain at the time.
Nonetheless, Turner may have seen the ship traveling sailing past Sheerness on other occasions. He recreated the scene from contemporary accounts and imaginative observation. Indeed, Turner included the same ship in a previous depiction of The Battle of Trafalgar, painted in 1806.
Owned by the royal navy, the Fighting Temeraire played a key role in the Napoleonic Wars. Its crew defended Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and continued serving until peace in 1815. The title of Turner’s painting directly references this wartime action.
After 1815 however, many of Britain’s large warships were redundant. Most (including the Temeraire) became supply ships, largely left to rot and decay.
Purchased in 1838 by the Rotherhithe shipbreaker John Beaston (for use as scrap), the Fighting Temeraire sold for £5,530. Beaston hired two tugs to tow the 2000-tonne ship along the Thames.
Despite this, Turner only shows one tug pulling the ship, whilst another is just visible in the background. The journey lasted two days in total, with the Fighting Temeraire reaching its final resting place on 6 September 1838.
The painting itself currently hangs in the National Gallery, London. After its initial exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1839, the public loved its poetic composition and patriotic overtones.
Whilst Turner received some very generous offers from buyers for the painting, he kept it until 1852, when he passed away. Turner referred to the paiinting as “My Darling”, and he gifted it in his will to the National Gallery. Alongside much other J.M.W. Turner art, it remains proudly displayed in the museum to this day.
Joseph Mallord William Turner the 18th and 19th century British artist is world-famous for his romantic landscape and seascape oil paintings which are seen as an influence on the Impressionist painters; particularly Claude Monet, who is known to have studied Turner’s work. Turner became a famous and wealthy artist very young in life thus allowing him to experiment with styles and painting effects. He is famous for his use of light and the effect of sunlight. Turner was very much admired in his day and many members of the British aristocracy commissioned him to paint scenes from their estates, notably the 3rd Earl of Egremont at Petworth House in Sussex. Turner is known to have painted 550 oils, over 2,000 watercolors and 30,000 works on paper. The Tate Gallery in London holds the most comprehensive exhibition of Turner’s paintings, and his work is represented in most museums in the world and in private collections. In 2010 the J Paul Getty Museum paid $45 million for a Turner, the highest auction price for one of his paintings.
Turner’s most famous painting has to be The Fighting Temeraire 1839. Other notable Turner paintings are Death on a Pale Horse, Snow Storm 1843 and Peace Burial at Sea 1843.
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