William Turner’s The Valiant Témeraire from 1839 is one of my favorite landscape works by the English artist. And it’s kept here in London at National Gallery, the city’s collection of modern art.
A vessel is being towed through the waters of the River Thames. It moves to the shipyard where it will be scrapped due to its condition. A white flag flies from the tug, to symbolize her sad end. We are talking about the Téméraire, the ship that 33 years earlier had made the difference in the Battle of Trafalgar and Turner tells us about it with his unique style. I am Clelia and today we discover William Turner’s The Valorous Témeraire from 1839.
The subject of the work
The Valorous Témeraire immortalizes the ship on its last journey, which took place 33 years after the Battle of Trafalgar. The ship had indeed played a vital role in the battle, coming to the aid of Lord Nelson’s ship of victory when it was locked in close combat.
At the center of the work, the ship is no longer in good condition. It is in fact towed through the waters of the River Thames. It moves to the Rotherhithe shipyard where it will be scrapped due to its poor state of conservation. A white flag flies from the tug, to symbolize the sad surrender of the Témeraire.
The theatrical setting of the work
Although the classic English flag, commonly known as the Union Jack, no longer flies from the mast, the greatness of the Temeraire’s past is recognized by Turner in this work. An idealized and theatrical vision.
In fact, in the work the ship is exalted as a symbol of English strength and resistance. And Tuner also decides to go against the laws of nature in his representation.
It represents, in fact, the ship traveling east, with a glorious sunset behind it. While in real life the ship would have traveled west. This was because Rotherhithe the place he headed for was west of Sheerness.
The role of Turner’s The Valiant Temeraire in the story
The Valiant Temeraire played a key role in one of the most famous naval battles in the history of England. the Battle of Trafalgar. On October 21, 1805, the British navy, led by Lord Nelson, was engaged in combat with a fleet of French and Spanish vessels off Cape Trafalgar, south of Cadiz, Spain. Under the command of Captain Eliab Harvey, Temeraire comes to the rescue of Nelson’s flagship, Victory, and also captures two French vessels. In four and a half hours the British navy captures over half of the enemy ships and destroys one. During the fighting, Lord Nelson is mortally wounded, but is informed that the battle has been won and the threat of invasion by Napoleon’s forces averted.
The ship as a metaphor for man
Many factors combine to make this work so unforgettable and moving: the setting, the balance of the composition, the extraordinary quality of light and the very strong emotion it arouses.
Metaphor of the journey of life, the end of this old sailing ship represents the end of an era. Even the black buoy in the foreground seems to be standing still. Turner was in his sixties when he made the painting and perhaps he really wanted to represent the passage of time and the evolution of human life.
The first exhibition of the work
When the work was exhibited for the first time, in 1839 at the Royal Academy in London, the nostalgia linked to the event was accentuated by the inclusion in the catalog of a poem by Thomas Campbell:
“The flag who defied battle and the breeze, has it no more.the
work. A painting that celebrated a contemporary historical event, but also successfully using the techniques of the old masters. And in particular that of Claude, the French landscape painter of the 17th century (c. 1660-82), which Turner admired, and Turner
himself loved the work so much that the painter refused to sell it as “my old treasure”, until it came to the government with the legacy of the painter
Turner’s The Valorous Téméraire Details of the work
The Valorous Téméraire by Turner
The three-decked, 98-gun Temeraire was moored off Sheerness Harbor for several years before being moved. Her three masts had been removed, along with many other parts. The paint was peeling in several places. Turner, however, chose to depict the ship in an elegant and romantic vision in white and gold, complete with masts. Arguably, a more appropriate farewell hiatus for a ship whose name means bold and fearless.
The industrial trailer
On its last voyage, another boat was following the Témeraire. Turner has chosen to exclude it, perhaps to emphasize the contrast between the black steam tug and the majestic white sailing ship. The tugboat has been interpreted as a symbol of the evils of the British Industrial Revolution. But this interpretation is much debated by critics because of other works by Turner, which instead glorify the industrial revolution. Indeed, Turner embraced the steam-powered engineering of the future in his 1844 painting Rain, Steam, and Speed, a celebration of the age of the train.
The Great Ship in the Background
In the background, on the horizon to the right, Turner has included another ship. Large and under full sail, this vessel almost looks like a ghost.
Turner may have included her, according to critics, to remind us how Temeraire must have looked in her full glory. However, Turner’s tall-treeed valiant Téméraire is almost faded from view, so perhaps instead it only serves to reinforce the painting’s theme. The end of the era of the sailing vessel and the irrevocable transition to the era of steam power.
The rising moon and the fiery red setting
A fragment of the moon is visible in the sky in the upper left of the painting. Its reflection illuminates the water below, shimmering on the sails furled on the masts and the foam stirred up by the tugboat. The silver-colored light reinforces the light colors of the ship and contrasts strongly with the fiery tones of the setting sun.
The setting sun is symbolic. Indeed, it represents the end of the age of sailing and the disappearance of the Témeraire. The blood-red sky, reflected in the water’s surface, perhaps reminds us of the sacrifices made by the British navy at the Battle of Trafalgar.
La Téméraire is placed well to the left of the painting on one of the two-thirds lines. But its visual weight is perfectly balanced by the luminous sunset that dominates the entire right side of the composition. And this is also possible thanks to the fact that the thick layer of paint was applied on and around the sun, using a technique called impasto.
The human figures in the background
In the right corner of the painting, there are silhouettes of human figures standing on a boat. these were probably inserted to give an idea of scale and to help establish the size of the Témeraire. Also, the boats and buildings in the distance add another human element to the painting.
Turner’s landscapes. Characteristics
Turner’s landscapes were influenced by the work of Claude, with whom he shared an interest in light and its representation. Turner paints the sun-drenched clouds in The Valorous Témeraire using a technique he learned from Claude. She applies very thin layers of semi-transparent white and yellow oil paint over the darker blues, oranges and reds to give the clouds a translucent appearance.
Turner leaves his works to the British nation with the understanding that some of them would in future hang alongside Claude’s works. as indeed is the case today in some rooms of the National Gallery here in London.
John William Turner. The Artist’s Story
Considered one of the most important British artists in the history of art, Turner was fascinated throughout his life by the effects of light, water and wind.
Joseph Mallord William Turner first exhibited a painting at the Royal Academy in London when he was only 15 years old. He was a truly gifted and imaginative child.
Turner travels extensively and produces a great deal of work. His style varies greatly over the years. And the artist ranges from accurate topographical watercolors to large landscapes on canvas. Especially after visiting Italy.
In 1805 he was increasingly influenced by Romanticism and his paintings became freer and more expressive. Try to capture the power of nature in bright landscapes depicting severe storms and blizzards.
Turner’s work has been criticized for its lack of formal composition, but it has also attracted great admirers. Among them, especially the famous critic John Ruskin. When Turner died in 1851, he bequeathed much of his work to the British nation. And many of his works are now exhibited at Tate Britain and the National Gallery in London.
Cover: William Turner, The valiant Témeraire, 1839, National Gallery, London