Turner – Ulysses Deriding polyphemus

Most of Turner’s early works are superficial imitations of Claude Lorrain (see Dido Building Carthage, 498). His latest ones (such as Queen Mab’s Grotto, 548) are highly specialized, abstract studies of light and color, anticipating Monet not only in brilliance but in a tendency to weaken design by melting away all definite shapes and positions in space. His light and color, so completely deprived of form, often degenerate into mere flashy smears of paint. The works of his middle years, the Ulysses and the Fighting Temeraire (524), combine originality with comparative strength of organization.

Never before or since has the splendor of the sun, rising or setting over water, been preserved with such magnificence and realism. The soft, gentle glow of Claude is raised to an explosion of red and gold that sets the sky and sea ablaze. The classical tradition, handed down through Claude, survives in the portrayal of these Greek galleys, but with more of the epic vigor, the “surge and thunder” of its subject, the Odyssey, than any previous painter had expressed. There is a debt to Rubens, too, in this dramatic excitement, this love for turbulent contrasts of cloud and sunshine, but the total effect is to be found in no earlier work of art. Brilliant as they are, the colors of this middle period are restrained from becoming mere daubs of paint by orderly gradations of light and shadow. Objects recede in space, and they build up definite rhythms of three-dimensional shape: for example, the fan-like diverging of masts, oars and rays of light; the curving planes of the rocks and clouds, and of the prows and sails of the ships.

These interrelations of shape are not carried far enough to organize the picture into a definite design; by comparison with a Claude or a Cezanne, the picture is loose and vague. But it is organized in terms of atmosphere to exactly the extent intended, and there is no sense of inconsistency or falling apart. The subject is a misty sunrise, and a certain haziness is suitable. If its rather grandiose, melodramatic glamor seems exaggerated in the present age, that quality is thoroughly characteristic of the age in which it was painted: the close of the romantic period.