Wednesday, October 13, 2010

He Tried to Paint It All

Today in the Pacific Northwest is one of those inexplicable days when the weather seems totally out of sync with the rest of the world. After a long, cool and wet "Green Tomato Summer" when the rest of the nation was broiling, today we have brilliant sunshine and bright skies, with an expected temperature of 70 degrees.

Indirectly, weather like this always makes me think if an extraordinary man of the 19th Century, a small man of great stature in my mind, J.M.W.Turner. I think of the strange,baffling weather experienced by Northern Europe and North America in the year 1816 which we now know was caused by the giant volcanic eruption of Mt. Tambora in the Indonesian area. Although the average temperature lowered only 3 degrees, this was enough to create massive problems. Crops failed, snow fell in July, and even Niagara Falls froze over. And the skies around the world exhibited glorious sunsets. Nobody knew then what had caused the sudden changes, and they didn't seem to make any connection between the unusual skies and the weather changes.

While other people worried about more mundane and immediate problems. one man in particular saw the magnificent glory in the skies and set about to capture it all. Turner was already a promising artist in 1816, but he had not yet reached the peak of his fame. Like most artists of his day, he was concerned with recording the visual details of life and nature, for there really was no other way to pass them on but through art. And like most painters, he strove for exacting detail. He learned the techniques of the great masters. He hung his paintings in galleries, eagerly hoping for the adoration of the masses.

But the sunsets over Europe that year began a change in him that would send his career into new directions. He became enamored with the magnificent colors and patterns in the skies, and perhaps afraid they would not continue forever, he rushed to paint the sunsets all over Europe. He probably had ADHD, for he was an excitable, fast-paced, forever busy man, always sketching when he could not be painting, always wanting to capture everything he saw on canvas. And now he wanted most of all to capture the sunsets.

But how do you capture an ever-changing sunset? Clouds shift and colors change from blue to yellow, to gold, orange, red, purple and every shade in between, minute by minute. Even a rapid painter like Turner could not succeed. I think when I look at sunsets how I can simply pull out my point-and-shoot camera and record the memory with a click. No one in his era could do that. But for the next few years, while sunsets remained glorious. Turner streamlined his techniques and caught wonderful skies over castles, over oceans, over mountains and fields. And today we have an impressive array of his wonderful paintings.

If you follow the link above, you'll see a gallery of his many paintings on several pages, each one with a link. You might notice, too, that his style changes from the early carefully detailed Classical style, leaning toward the color splashes of the later Impressionists. And even though the brilliant sunsets faded., Turner did not forget them. The brilliant splash of light infected him for the rest of his painting life. He became more fascinated by the play of light than the detail of objects. His style became more diffuse, sometimes making the viewer wonder if his sight was fading. It was infectious. Other painters, suffering from the same malady of needing to make a moment in time stand still long enough to capture it on canvas, took up his techniques, painting faster and faster. Impressionism, with its study of light play and form,was being born. And you can see its beginnings in the paintings of Turner's lifetime.

Turner was extraordinary in many ways. And I'll tell you someday how he was one of the first to use his own form of mass media to promote his work and sell it when other artists stuck to the old tried and true ways and starved. But most of all when I think of him, I think of the sunsets he saved for us, and how he tried to paint them all.

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