Panyapha Leekitwattana

The Seaports of J.M.W Turner (excerpt)

Class of: 2021

Major: Design and Technology BFA

Medium: Essay

Faculty: Sharyn Finnegan

Prompt: Choose one or two objects from the specified exhibitions and write a visual analysis about them.

During my visit to The Frick Collection, I was stunned by the oil paintings of the various seaports by an English Romantic painter J.M.W Turner, or Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851). What drew me to the paintings wasn’t only the scale, the expressive colors, or the light that appeared to be glowing and radiate out of the paintings, but also the atmospheric quality that, to me, has given a sound quality to the paintings. When I look at the paintings, I felt that I could also hear the scenes in each painting, from the sound of the people chattering in the Harbor of Dieppe: Changement de Domicile (1825) to the thunderstorms in the Fishing Boats Entering Calais Harbor (1803). This could be due to the technique Turner had used to display the atmosphere that has created emotions and moods that emanate out of the paintings to the viewers. Comparing J.M.W Turner’s paintings, the Harbor of Dieppe: Changement de Domicile against the Fishing Boats Entering Calais Harbor, it could be said that Turner depicted a lively or a chaotic/dangerous atmosphere, and a sense of time through the use of nature, colors, light, and composition.

Displayed at The Frick Collection in New York, NY, Fishing Boats Entering Calais Harbor (1803) is an oil painting with the dimensions of 29 x 38 3/4 in. (73.7 x 98.4 cm). The painting itself is depicting several fishing boats as they were entering the Calais Harbor, located in Northern France, during an intense storm. The aspect of nature conveyed in this painting was no doubt the dangerous, and even aggressive, characteristic that nature can have. The distinct texture made by the brushstrokes created motion in the waves that seemed to be swirling and rushing violently against the rocking boats. The harsh white brushstrokes shaped the form of the waves and the waves’ organic forms made it looked as if they were one monstrous being trying to swallow the fishing boat whole. Moreover, the colors of the waves that were darker on the left and light on the right of the canvas further showed the direction that the waves
move towards. The overall grey color palette conveyed the rough weather condition, with the smaller part of the painting slightly showing the warmer lights peeking in from the stormy clouds. These grey tones were reflected in both the sky and the water, unifying the whole scene within its turbulent weather and chaotic atmosphere. Still, the grey tones did not make the painting seemed lifeless and unreal, since the warm-toned lights were also casted faintly all over to add life to the painting and its roaring waves. In addition, the strong contrast on the light and dark tones made some parts of the painting, like the high point of the waves, seemed more 3-dimensional, as if they were really reflecting the natural light within the scene.

At first glance, the composition reminded me of Hokusai’s The Great Wave from the Edo period; the waves at the front are very big and intimidating, taking up 1/3 of the canvas. Also, the objects got smaller as they were further away, in The Great Wave, this was the Fuji Mountain, and in Fishing Boats Entering Calais Harbor, the fishing boats that were following got smaller, as well the far view of the city that was the smallest. Still, the boats were a lot more prominent in Fishing Boats Entering Calais Harbor than The Great Wave, with several boats in the scene, as well as the main boat being placed right at the center of the canvas and tipped to the right to both create a dynamic composition when combined with the direction of the waves, and to depict the strength of the waves, or nature, that a boat, or a human’s creation, was struggling to withstand. Furthermore, although the form of both Turner’s and Hokusai’s waves was curving and shaping a circular form around the center of the canvas, Turner’s waves curved less, but used the deep tones and the brushstrokes to emphasize the winding form of the waves. More importantly, Fishing Boats Entering Calais Harbor achieved the circular form with the composition of the waves’ motion in relation to the clouds and light placements in the sky; to the left of the canvas, the wave, as it swirled up, connected to the clouds of the same color palette as these certain colors lead the eyes through the canvas, while leaving a circular gap in the middle. In this case, the gap was the small opening in the sky, further into the distance, that allowed sunlight to shine through the murky clouds onto the city. This composition, of using forms to circle into the painting, is reminiscent of a tunnel that seemed to pull the viewers into the scene that was carefully and thoughtfully composed, to let the viewers be immersed in the atmospheric quality of the painting.