J.M.W. Turner, best known for his grandiose and light-filled landscape, seascape and cityscape paintings found great inspiration in nature, with the possibilities offered by drawing and painting from life. His wild and majestic landscapes are credited with elevating landscape painting to a new and masterful craft. Showing signs of a protégé as a young child, he studied with notable artists and architects, was later admitted to the Royal Academy of Art, and his paintings were accepted and exhibited by the Royal Academy of Art a few years later. He was encouraged by his mentors to pursue landscapes, travel throughout Europe, and sketch from nature. As someone who was attracted to the aesthetics of tragedy and the beauty of nature, many of his works depict scenes of shipwrecks or fires. Turner was fascinated by the power of nature and the violent potential it had to destroy everything in its path, ultimately a reminder of the insignificance of human presence in the face of natural forces.
The watercolor “Lurleiberg” was completed during Turner’s travels throughout Europe along the Rhine river in the early 19th century. Lurleiberg referred to a rocky cliff formation along the Rhine, near the small medieval town of St. Goar, Germany. Lurleiberg was a beautiful, but formidable site where many sailors lost their way through the sharp rocks and relentless fog. It was named after the legendary siren, Lorelei, who lured sailors onto a deadly course. This watercolor is a part of his seven studies done in chalk and watercolor of this particularly scenic stretch of the Rhine where the cliffs grow taller and the waters dive deeper. This watercolor depicts a seemingly calm picture of the Rhine, but the underlying potential for disaster is apparent. This is an impressive scene with towering cliffs, a winding river and a dense fog that invites us in for adventure and beauty, however, the St. Goar length of the Rhine was an eerie graveyard for unlucky sailors trying to make their way through this treacherous passage. The figures, small and quiet, are indifferent to the potential danger around them, while the imposing rocks and the ominous fog set the scene for catastrophe. Turner perfectly captures the dramatic potential of this scene with his hazy light, murky colors and soft edges; there is an opportunity for tragedy and an opportunity for calm.
One can read this painting and find either contentment or calamity, but neither would be incorrect. There is a certain ambiguity to this painting that intrigues and engages the viewer. Turner captures this in many of his paintings by sketching from life, capturing a specific moment in time with an expressive and vivid lens. The overcast sky and the hazy lighting suggest an uncertain time of day, and either the onset or aftermath of a storm. One could interpret that this symbolizes rebirth and survival after the storm, or one could interpret that this symbolizes an impending death and destruction. The delicate brushstrokes and soft edges create a sense of vagueness, both in the lack of clarity in the painting and the uncertainty of future events. In either case, the painting inspires an emotional response from the viewer, and invites individual interpretation. Turner captures the sublime, in either tragedy or calm, in this watercolor, and calls wonderment in us of this grand and monumental landscape, and the power and emotion of nature.
Come to the Mitchell Gallery to get a closer look at Turner’s “Lurleiberg” in The Lure of Nature: Landscape Drawings from the Thaw Collection.
This exhibition is made possible by The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, with additional support generously provided by the Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Charitable Trust.
This exhibition is generously supported by the Arthur E. and Hilda C. Landers Charitable Trust
–Julianne Levin, Mitchell Gallery Summer Intern