Art Stories : The fighting Temeraire by JMW Turner

This painting has a connection with a James Bond movie, the 20 pound bank note and the Industrial revolution. In 2005 the BBC Radio did a Survey to discover the Greatest Painting in Britain. The shortlist of ten paintings consisted of masterpieces such as Sunflowers by Van Gogh, A bar at the Follies Bergere by Manet and The Arnolfini Portrait by Van Eyck among others. More than a hundred thousand people in Britan voted to select their most beloved painting. The fighting Temeraire by Joseph Mallord William Turner won garnering almost a third of the votes.

The fighting temeraire

The complete name of the painting is “The fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up”. If you haven’t seen this painting before it’s hard to make out what is going on in this piece at a first glance. It’s a waterscape. There is what seems like a ship and a boat on the left. But it’s not very clear. There is a misty quality to the way the paint has been laid out. To really understand the painting you need to know more about the subject of the painting first – “The fighting Temeraire”. What is the fighting Temeraire?

HMS Temeraire was a 98 gun war ship of the Royal British Navy during the 1800s. It fought in the famous Battle of Trafalgar against the French and the Spanish and rose to a hero status after it helped win the battle in 1805. Because of this Temeraire was the subject of many historical paintings. In 1838, the old ship was sold by the admiralty to be broken up for more than 5000 pounds. It is believed that when the Temeraire was being tugged up the River Thames to be broken up, Turner saw this and decided to paint it. It was a great subject. Such an iconic war ship was now being tugged away to be broken up and sold. It’s glory days now over. It had served its purpose. The ship can be compared with the human life. A life filled with many eventful memories finally coming to an end. Turner had a special love for ships and painted them in a number of his paintings. He especially liked to depict ship wrecks. Ships fighting the elements of rain and storm. The painting of the Temeraire is a contrast though. The water is calm. Almost without any ripple. The sky is quite magnificent as the sun is about to set. In the foreground is a steam tug. Ugly looking and spewing smoke. It’s pulling the Temeraire. A white almost ghost like ship.

There is another layer to this painting. To understand it we need to understand the time period when this was painted. 1839. It was the era of the industrial revolution. The age of the steam engine. The industrial revolution was replacing a lot of things including the Royal Navy fleets. Turner seems to be depicting this with the contrast of the Steam tug and the old warship being tugged away. The setting sun is probably signifying an end to a glorious past. There is a crescent of the moon on the left signifying the birth of a new age.

A factory in Germany in 1868

There is yet another layer to this painting which is auto-biographical. Turner is telling his own life story with this painting as well. He sees this as a story of his glorious life as well. No doubt this was his most favorite painting and he refused to sell to anyone. He even refused a blank cheque offered to him for purchasing this painting. Today, JMW Turner is considered a pillar in art and his style influenced the upcoming impressionist painters such as Claude Monet, Auguste Renior et al. But during his lifetime, he also received criticism from his contemporaries for moving away from the traditional style of painting, especially in his later pieces. Much like the fighting temeraire, Turner died lonely and unceremoniously while living under a pseudo name of Mr. Booth in Chelsea. Turner bequeathed all his paintings to the British nation and asked that they all be shown together for free to the public. The fighting temeraire can be viewed at the National Gallery in London and all his remaining works are housed at the Tate Gallery in London.

In 2016, the Bank of England announced that the next 20 pound bank note will feature JMW Turner and his famous painting the fighting temeraire.

20 pound bank note

Okay, now for the James Bond connection to this painting. If you have seen the movie Skyfall, you might remember the scene where Bond meets the new Quartermaster. It’s set in the National Gallery and they are talking about this painting. The fighting temeraire has been used as a symbolism for Bond’s old age.

Q: “Always makes me feel a little melancholy. Grand old war ship, being ignominiously hauled away for scrap. The inevitability of time, don’t you think? What do you see?”

James Bond: “A bloody big ship.”

This is one of the lesser known masterpieces outside of Britain. It’s not one of those instantly recognizable paintings to the general public. But it’s a very interesting piece nevertheless. I find this painting’s commentary with respect to the industrial revolution relevant today more than ever. A new revolution of Artificial Intelligence and automation is ushering in displacing millions of jobs changing our lives in unpredictable ways. Much similar to what happened during the industrial revolution more than two centuries ago.

True masterpieces are timeless!

Art Stories : The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck

This is about one of my most favorite paintings. But before we talk about the painting, we need to talk about weddings. A wedding is one of the most important occasions of a person’s life. That is why we spend huge sums of money to capture the perfect wedding moments in beautiful pictures. Today, wedding photography is a fledgling industry worth millions of dollars. Couples hope to get that perfect quintessential wedding shot that they could upload as their Facebook covers and share on their Instagram feeds.

This is the 21st century. Lightning fast internet, high resolution DSLR cameras and smartphones are at our fingertips. Now imagine a time period 600 years back. It’s the 1400s. 1434 to be precise. And you are Giovanni Arnolfini. One of the richest merchants of Bruges, an European trade city. Photography isn’t even a thing yet. How do you document your marriage in a unique and special way? What you do is you bring in the best painter in the city and arguably in entire Europe. In this case, the painter was Jan Van Eyck and he immortalized the couple in one of the most famous paintings in the world – The Arnolfini Portrait.

But why is this painting famous? There is a lot of mystery attached to this painting because of how scholars differ on the interpretation of this painting. We will talk about the mysteries and various interpretations in a bit but just as is this painting is a masterpiece of the medieval and early renaissance period.

It’s an oil painting on an oak panel. A bold choice of medium because during that time period tempura was the de-facto choice. It’s approximately 32 inches by 24 inches.

This is what I see as my first impression of this piece. The painting’s main subjects are the couple – Giovanni Arnolfini on the left and his wife Costanza Trenta on the right. The husband is holding the young bride’s right hand with his left. There is an open window on the left which is lighting the room they are in. There is an expensive bed with bright red linen on the right. The background wall of the room has a beautiful round convex mirror. A chandelier hangs from the ceiling. A small dog is standing in between the couple staring straight at the viewer.

If you have seen paintings from the 1400s, it looks nothing like them. It’s three dimensional with space and depth, lot of spectacular details which is more characteristic of paintings from the 1600s. So, Jan Van Eyck created something which was two centuries ahead of his time.

If you look closely you can marvel at the immaculate details of the masterpiece. The Arnolfinis are dressed in exquisite clothing. Giovanni is in a black gown with a dark brown fur and his wife is wearing a green dress and a white head gear. The Arnolfinis were wealthy textile merchants of Europe so it made sense that they were shown wearing expensive clothing. The wife is slightly lifting her long green dress up-to her belly. This creates a bulge around her belly making us suspect that she is pregnant with a child. But As per the National Gallery of London where this painting is housed, she is not pregnant and this was a very usual way of wearing dresses during that period. As per the gallery, this is not even a wedding portrait but just a couple’s portrait.

But, there are other scholarly interpretations which questions this. Some believe this was indeed a wedding portrait document. This theory is supported by the fact that the painting has the Latin signature saying “Jan Van Eyck was here” just above the painted convex mirror on the wall. It’s dated 1434. The style of the font used for the signature is also suspect. It is what was used for notarizing documents during that time. Was this a conscious choice of the painter? If you look closely in the mirror it has the reflection of the back of the couple and two other figures. Who are these two figures?

You cannot see the details to make out who they are. Scholars believe one of them is Van Eyck himself. Who is the other person? Perhaps it is us? The viewer of the painting. The mirror on the wall is the most genius part of the painting for me. Van Eyck has managed to put us in the painting through this. He has included us to be the witness of the couple’s marriage.

There are small medallions all around the mirror which has scenes from the Passion of Christ. The supporter of the wedding portrait theory believe Van Eyck painted Christ to show the holy presence during the wedding.

But perhaps the most interesting theory is that the painting is actually a memorial painted after the death of the wife. Some believe that Giovanni Arnolfini’s wife Costanza died an year before this was painted. And Giovanni Arnolfini got his dead wife painted alongside himself later as a memorial. This theory is supported by couple of symbolisms in the painting. Firstly, the candle on the chandelier on the husband’s side is lighted but the one on the wife’s side has burnt out. The medallions on the mirror on the husband’s side has scenes showing life of Christ but the ones on the wife’s side has scenes of Christ’s death.

There are many other less popular but interesting interpretations of the painting. But, no one can say for sure what was it that Jan Van Eyck was really portraying here. It’s 6 centuries since this was painted and we are still wondering about it. That is the beauty of a true masterpiece. A lot is said in the picture but a lot is also left to the interpretation of the viewer.

This brilliant masterpiece was one of the earliest paintings bought by the newly formed National Gallery of London in 1842 for 600 pounds. If I had to put a price tag on this priceless piece it would easily be upwards of a 100 million dollars.

If you are in London do pay a visit to the Arnolfini couple.

This post is also in the form of a video podcast on youtube.