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Saturday Volcano Art: J. M. W. Turner, ‘Vesuvius in Eruption’ (1817) 26 September 2009

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J. M. W. Turner, 'Vesuvius in Eruption (1817) - detailThe English artist J. M. W Turner (1775-1851) exhibited this watercolour of Vesuvius in 1817. It was one of a pair: its companion depicted ‘Vesuvius in Repose’. At the time of painting these pictures Turner, who did not visit Naples until 1819, had not seen Vesuvius for himself and worked from studies made by other artists. He had already painted a dramatic image of ‘The Eruption of the Souffrier Mountains’ (1815), depicting the major 1812 eruption of Soufrière volcano on St Vincent. Volcanoes offered the sublime spectacle of a natural phenomenon both beautiful and destructive, and appealed to Turner’s sense of the dynamic cycles of destruction and renewal that governed both natural processes and the workings of human history.

J. M. W. Turner, 'Vesuvius in Eruption (1817)

The dramatic light effects of this picture vividly evoke the power of the eruption as it roars across the sky and bathes the land and sea in its red glare. The dazzling brightness of the heart of the eruption is created by Turner scraping away layers of paint to the white canvas beneath: the same technique is used to create the jagged lightning that flickers through the eruption cloud. Elsewhere, thickly applied repeated watercolour and gum washes give the picture a depth and intensity of a kind more usually associated with oils. The characteristically Turnerian compositional device of a vortex draws the eye in from the outer edges of the picture to the fiery summit of the volcano, almost swallowed up in swirling contrasts of light and dark. In the foreground, emphasizing the vast scale of the natural forces unleashed by the eruption, the tiny shapes of people can be seen gazing up at the spectacle.

Turner’s expressionistic vision of the volcano can be interestingly compared with the more rationalized classical vision represented by Xavier Della Gatta’s ‘Eruption of Vesuvius’ of 1794. Della Gatta seeks to represent the spectacle of the volcanic eruption, Turner to transcend representation and engage directly with the onlooker’s emotional response.

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Comments

1. robert carpenter - 28 September 2009

what else can you say about this painting of turners ?
its art. its a work of art.

2. Jackie B. - 28 September 2009

Hey, you might just be right there Robert!

(Great article BTW.)


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