Turner’s trips to Venice were not long but they were transformative. Questing for Light, commissions, and artistic adventure, Turner made three trips to Venice, his last in 1840. Looking at Turner’s Venetian experiments in watercolor remember that he eternally admired the atmospheric effects of Claude Lorraine. He aimed to exceed Claude’s luminous airy effects in his own work. He confided to young John Ruskin that atmosphere was his style. His Venetian watercolors are his proof. On his last trip Turner stays longer than before and, unusual for him he brings along a different set of painting materials. He carries soft rolls of watercolor paper which (at about 9×12″) are larger than his usual pencil notebooks. He intended to make watercolor sketches and, he did. Many were made back in his hotel room, a converted palazzo.
Turner always had an eye for a business opportunity and, his major patron for the last half of his life, a Scot, H.A.J.Munro, had requested a view of Venice. Turner observed the continued popularity of Canaletto’s 18th Century views of Venice and the Thames. He had seen and read the “The Merchant of Venice”, Travel Guides on Italy, and Byron’s “Child Harold’s Pilgrimage.” Turner would paraphrase Byron’s work in his titles. Turner saw that his contemporaries, Samuel Prout, Richard Parks Bonington and Stanton all enjoyed commercial success with their Venetian subjects. He wanted part of the action. Turner ‘s watercolor papers would be white, toned, and blue and a few sheets of brown. Whistler, of course, observed Turner’s effects with the brown paper and borrowed the idea later for his own work. Turner generally used transparent watercolor and body color (opaque white) and chalk. Other poets and artists had previously discussed Venetian moonlight as its optimal illumination. Turner generally preferred the moonlight/twilight time which could he could effectively exploit on his blue and brown paper. He also continued the Claudian tradition of backlighting – that is, looking into the setting or rising sun for dramatic chiaroscuro silhouette effects. This time of day allowed him to ignore details within shapes and concentrate on simpler and suggested forms that were filled in with shadow. The criticisms of his work misunderstood Turner’s effects, intentions, and methods. The complaints ranged from his images being to obscure to too much color. One critic complained of messy chromomania. Turner was a poet, not a transcriber of information. If the piazza needed to be redesigned for purposes of his composition then, he redesigned it. He moved Romeo and Juliet from Verona to Venice. The dramatic of effects of light and motion, the stirrings of the sky and water, the evanescence of the moment were his motivation and he discovered these qualities in his hotel room experiments. If the light and color emerging from the paint was evocative then he left it alone to emote and he never subordinated emotional effects to the constraints of geographic information. His tools were exaggeration, luminous diffusion, light, color, and suggestive ambiguity.
For Turner, composition was the simple substructure that would support his atmospheric adventures. Consider these three examples. They all share the same compositional structure that he slowly refines over time as he creates a more cohesive unity with the development of interlocking shapes and complementary color. He moves his viewing position as he explores a vista across the water to the Campanile with Santa Maria Della Salute off to the left. Example 1. is a watercolor which shows a more rectangular composition with the two opposite sides not yet interconnecting, not overlapping. The campanile is in the center. In Example 2, the Campanile is moved to the left and Santa Maria della Salute has moved off stage. The composition is still a squarish rectangle but now the serpentine design with interconnecting shapes appears. Example 3, a watercolor from his last trip of 1840, shows a more horizontal composition. This is better; the field of sky in the earlier versions had not participated in the composition. The use of complementary color is now more pronounced, giving a more dynamic color harmony to the watercolor. Santa Maria della Salute’s dome reappears along with an echoing dome shape just as the Campanile has an echoing tower shape.
Turner knows how we are directed to look toward the light. His watercolors on the blue and brown papers exploit the unifying effects of the colored paper and offer an opportunity for Turner to add opaque light into the distance visual goal, or visual destination. Example 4 is a work on the brown paper. We see through the dark arches of the gallery along the Piazza San Marco toward the Campanile in the bright Twilight. In Example 5 our attention is sent down a canal with linear perspective toward a narrow vertical frame of light. The tops of the buildings poke into the light. Is it twilight, moonlight, evening light? This ambiguous time of late or early day was a delightful puzzle in Turner’s work often offending more literal minds.
I have borrowed the obfuscating atmospheric effects of Turner to make my own works more luminous, more emotive, more suggestive, less literal and more likely to suggest a luminous quiver of motion. As you see here in example 6. I begin with a more clearly defined set of edges. In example 7, I have dissolved the edges to create more light, more atmosphere, more space.
My Venice has become New York City, Times Square. I have traded Turner’s Venetian ships for automobiles. I continue to rely on linear perspective dissolving into a luminous vortex as you see in example 8. Or, consider example 9. Like Turner I have directed my vision toward the light creating a condition for vague silhouettes, figures of uncertainty. The flanks of the composition are cloaked in vibrating obscurities. We tunnel through the image toward the light. We cross the reflecting streets just as Turner has us cross the quivering and reflecting water of Venice. Often, water occupies much of Turner’s picture space. It’s ambiguous possibilities were a rich mine for Turner’s watercolor and oil experiments. And, borrowing from Turner’s example, I have found a location which allows me to explore my own penchant for atmospheric chromomania.
David, great atmospheric post. I enjoyed reading about the artists borrowing from each other, and making the art the own. And, of course, as you can already guess, I love your Time Square paintings, all of them.
One of my favorites, certainly, and so amazingly written and exampled! Thank you David! I’m looking forward to several great dreams tonight exploring my own minds’ chromomanic dreamscapes!
I’m excited with the prospect of employing a growing watercolor vocabulary on brown paper. Should open up all kinds of possibilities. Thanks for a new direction!
It is always intersting as well as beneifical to read about Turner. I did not know that he made four trips to Venice as well .as his entrepenurial spirit to serve his mentors.
It is hard to believe that Times Square is your Venice but certainly for color, perspective and illusion it does all that. But Times Square does not have the charm or romance of Venice.
Example #7 water & reeds is greatly improved by the vague atmosphere and added space by the ambiguity of the space beyond..Certainly the effects of light are greatly enhance; so to for Times Square the effect of light and atmosophere are very evident. Only thing missing for me is the romance.
It has been a pleasure to stumble upon this blog and read Mr. Dunlop’s views, interpretations and see his work. The comments too are often times interesting, including Mr Neuwirth’s, and today his remarks regarding “romance”. Since what is romantic is a personal or subjective idea, I would like to respectfully suggest that while Venice and romance is connected for Mr Neuwirth, it is a choice he makes. I would propose that with a different mind or view romance can be found anywhere & everywhere. I am reminded of a local painter I met who told me that he frequently can’t find anything to paint, I interpreted this to mean that he cannot “see” without his mind getting in the way. I struggle with getting out of my mind everyday.