Romantic Baroque: the Landscapes of William Turner

2 06 2010

It might seem contradictory that the landscapes of the Romantic movement (with which William Turner’s work is usually associated) are so beautiful. The Romantics of the 18th and 19th century were responsible in many ways for destroying the traditional forms that preceded them and opened the way to ugliness of modern art. Their emphasis on personal feelings and especially intense emotion of the artist is contrary to the traditional idea of painting in conformity to objective standards for the greater glory of God.

There is a desire to communicate emotion in the baroque also, but it is not the emotion of the artist that is emphasized. Rather, it is the emotion of the person painted or sculpted that is portrayed. Bernini’s St Theresa of Avila, for example, reveals her emotional state, not his.

Subjectivity is not necessarily a bad thing however: when those subjective feelings coincide with what is objectively true, there is the possibility of something good. Broadly speaking, this is the case for Romantic landscapes, provided the desire of the artist is to communicate the beauty of nature (and other things being equal). The training the artists received in the 18th and 19th centuries was essentially the same as that from the previous period: which was an adaptation of the academic method – originally developed for the study of the human person -for landscape. It transmitted the baroque visual vocabulary of form without departing from core Christian principles (although steadily becoming more and more detached from a Christian understanding of them).

As mentioned before, baroque landscape employed control of focus and intensity of colour that corresponded to the way that the human person naturally perceives the world around him. The inclination in the 17th century baroque was to represent those areas where the colour is muted in sepia. This meant that they very often gave the appearances of very deep shadow everywhere that was not  the primary focus of interest. This of course, is not always appropriate. To overcome this artists started to become more sophisticated in the range of colours they used for those areas rendered tonally.

The great English artist, William Turner developed a striking answer to the problem. Drawing on the colour theory of Goethe, he developed a system in which he rendered form tonally, but in a variety of colours rather than just sepia. It is not easy to discern a strict format, but broadly speaking and as best as I have been able to discern it, in the foreground he used yellow for those areas in sunlight, and red through to deep red ochre and finally sepia for shadow.  Then those areas that are in the distance he used blues for sunlight and, violets and blacks for shadow. All this is varied subtly dependant also upon the natural colour of the objects. The skill needed to combine all of this and yet still give the painting an impressional unity is immense. What I have described applies to land, building and trees. His skies are rendered in blues, greys and if painting sunsets, red and yellow; and seas in this system seem to sit between the two because the water reflects the light of the sea and land.

It appears to me that in many of his watercolours, which would be painted quickly, he relies on this more (perhaps he is developing and perfecting the technique through them). In his oil paintings he uses this variation but the control is more subtle – after all the background areas, which these are, should be subordinate to the main foci of interest, which are going to be rendered more literally.

Another feature of Turner’s art is the reduction of the area which is sharp focus (with a corresponding decrease in the areas which are painted blurred. The out-of-focus areas are painted as though in peripheral vision. Turner used to practice painting his peripheral vision. This accounts for the looseness of many of his works. However, he never abandons the points of focus altogether. The oil painting Snowstorm, left, for example, is almost all blurred blizzard, there is, nevertheless the sharp line of a mast and a daub of bright colour for the boat, so that the eye has somewhere to rest. Many of his later oils are painted as thin washes of colour, mimicking his watercolour method there are many of these in Tate Britain museum in London – I am not sure if Turner considered all of them finished although to the modern eye they look splendid.

What is interesting is that to my knowledge the colour theory of Goethe is not consistent with ideas of modern physics, yet it works well in Turner’s paintings. It may be a lucky inspiration (or perhaps there is something to Goethe after all!). Regardless of the validity of Goethe’s theories, the success of the paintings is a tribute to Turner’s great skill and intuitive sense of what works once he has painted it.

The paintings shown are watercolours except for Snowstorm, above and the two at the bottom of the series below, which are oils.




8 responses

2 06 2010
Mark Scott Abeln

Goethe’s theory of opponent colors is not based on physics, but is rather has a lot in common with the human psychology of color perception. The human eye has three classes of color receptors, sensitive to red, green, and blue, and that is necessarily how digital cameras record color and video displays present them.

However, color perception is based on differences in signal among the classes of receptors, and not their absolute value. (In engineering, this is quite common – voltage and pressure are determined as a difference of measured values, and not an absolute value). So unlike digital cameras, we do not perceive color based on the absolute amounts of red, green, and blue sensed by our color receptors. This is critical to Goethe’s theory of opponent colors.

So it appears that perception is measured in terms of opponent colors: green versus magenta, yellow versus blue, and black versus white. The selection of opponents is critical and the mixing of equal quantity of opponents ought to equal a pure gray. Finding the simplest set of colors that can produce all others by mixing is equivalent to the mathematical method of finding the eigenvectors of a system: you end up with the simplest, most natural description of a system. Red versus cyan are other opponent colors, but apparently these are secondary to human color vision, and are otherwise determined by simple combinations of the other opponent colors; obviously there is lots of room for further research.

Once I learned how to edit my photos using opponent colors – this is the L*a*b* color space in Photoshop – my photography work improved immeasurably. This system allows for quick changes from cool to warm and renders changes in color far more naturally than the old RGB color system.

There is one problem with even this advanced method, and that is how the human eye perceives color under various levels of illumination: here the camera and the eye sharply diverge. Under the dim lighting of dusk, and even during a heavily overcast day, the camera will record a scene quite unlike that which is perceived: the eye sees much more blue than the camera. This is also pretty obvious under dim incandescent lighting.

Thank you for these postings – they are fascinating in their own right, and I am improving my photography from the study of the arts of painting and drawing. Until you mentioned Turner, I had no idea that painters used focus – this is of utmost importance in photography, but I did not know that it was used in painting.

3 06 2010

Mark- Thanks for your post. Do you have a suggestion on works to read to learn about Goethe’s color theory? The original work is somewhat inaccessible and the Wikipedia entry is rather shallow, but I would love to learn more.

2 06 2010

thank you for this Mark. I would love to know how you have changed your photography as a result of this. I am not aware that anyone has really applied the use of a camera to consideration of how it produced pictures that are consistent with a Catholic worldview in the same way that the baroque Masters, for example, did with painting. I have a few ideas but they are not well developed and I’m not a photographer so don’t know the scope of control by the photographer. Perhaps I’ll post them one day as a speculative piece. It would be great to develop some sort of dialogue here.

4 06 2010
Mark Scott Abeln

Goethe’s contribution was recognizing that color is not a purely physical phenomenon based strictly on the wavelength of light, but is perceived according to laws present in the eye. In science classes, we are taught that a prism will break up white light into its ‘component colors’, according to Newton’s theory, but Goethe strongly refutes this claim, and he appears to be correct. Newton’s theory even fails to understand the existence of the color magenta, which is quite a striking failure.

Rather, color is a subjective phenomenon that nonetheless follows its own laws in the human eye. How we see color is based on the laws of human nature and not (at least directly) on physics. The objectively measured wavelengths of light is important, but it does not objectively determine what color we see – we have to take human nature into consideration to determine what color is perceived. The Opponent process theory attempts to provide a first-order understanding of human color vision:

In photography this becomes strikingly evident. I can take a photograph of a color-calibrated target in broad daylight and ensure that the resultant colors are all correct. Taking a photo of the target under typical artificial illumination, using the same objective camera settings, will produce an image where the colors are all wrong – even though they still look correct to the human eye. The eye strongly adapts to the color of the ambient lighting: Newton’s theory cannot explain this. Perceived color is conditioned by wavelength, but is not determined by wavelength. Color constancy under varying illumination is the most striking difference between human and camera perception:

A photograph or a painting is small and low-contrast, and typically takes up a small part of our view, so it takes art to make these look ‘right’ for the viewer. Objectively speaking, the human eye inside of a church lit by incandescent lighting will largely (although perhaps not entirely) remove the yellow color of the lighting to make colors look correct. But a tiny photograph will look entirely yellow (perhaps a wall-sized photo will look whiter if it fills your vision – I don’t know) A further complication is stained glass windows: a photograph will render them a strong blue, which is not obviously perceived by the eye in real life, so I have to do two color corrections, one for the interior, one for the windows, and then composite them together. The human eye attempts to remove much of the color change due to the color of light, but not entirely: for example, the eye perceives shadows in daylight as blue, but not nearly as strong a blue as recorded by the camera.

Well, I have to get going. Catholicism is a huge influence on my photography, and I hope to be able to give witness to the reasons later.

5 06 2010
Matthew James Collins

An interesting observation on the difference between the transmission of emotion in Baroque and Romantic art. Definitely worth reflecting on.

5 06 2010

thank you as ever Matt Your piece is scheduled to come out next friday. Hope all is well. btw I love your etchings – I think you should do more of those. David

9 06 2010
19th-century Baroque: The Landscapes of John Constable « The Way of Beauty

[…] Romantic Baroque: the Landscapes of William Turner […]

17 06 2010
Baroque Landscape: Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot « The Way of Beauty

[…] Romantic Baroque: the Landscapes of William Turner […]

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