|Mutability: The Interaction of Past and Present in English Romanticism
Washington Christian Academy
2010 NEH Seminar for School Teachers
Interpretations of the Industrial Revolution in Britain
Why does the past matter to us now? This is a compelling question, especially for young students whose lives are often intensely focused on what is new and fashionable and who feel little connection to the outmoded technology, styles, and values of the past. At the same time, many turn to the past for reassurance or stability in a rapidly changing world, and they are not unique in doing so. In the nineteenth century, another unstable world, English Romantic artists painted what was the present for them, but they also painted the past, and these paintings are part of a profound dialogue about the interaction of past and present. Two of the artists to paint interacting views of the past and present were John Constable and J.M.W. Turner, who were born only one year apart and who became two of England’s most famous landscape painters, but whose careers, styles, and views of the world were very different. Examining a sample of their works is an excellent way to start a conversation among students about how the past and present impact each other so that they can reflect on their own interpretations of history. This paper is designed to be a reflection piece and accompaniment for the PowerPoint presentation “Mutability: The Interaction of Past and Present in English Romanticism” to help prepare a teacher to lead a seminar on the topic. It provides background information on Constable and Turner, their nineteenth century context, and on four of their paintings, Turner’s Dido Building Carthage; or the Rise of the Carthaginian Empire, and The Fighting ‘Temeraire’, tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up, 1838, and Constable’s Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows.
The early nineteenth century in England was a time of considerable change. The Industrial Revolution was turning the world around, and the old and new coexisted uneasily. Many aspects of English life remained as they had been, but other aspects were new and uncomfortable. At the same time that the production and consumption of goods were changing rapidly, the nation also experienced a series of wars with France and various political reform movements. This upheaval in society was reflected in art and literature, both in how art was created and in the ideas conveyed within it; “long-established ideas concerning the visual arts were in a state of flux.” At the same time, history was developing for the first time into a recognized academic discipline (Venning 9). Many of its proponents made strong claims for the value of history; Thomas Carlyle, in his essay, “On History,” said, “Let us search more and more into the Past; let all men explore it, as the true fountain of knowledge, by whose light alone, consciously or unconsciously employed, the Present and the Future can be interpreted or guessed at (quoted by Chapman 1).” David Hume added, “Would you know the sentiments, inclinations, course of life of the Greeks and Romans? Study well the temper and actions of the French and English: you cannot be much mistaken in transferring to the former most of the observations you have made in regard to the latter. Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange” (quoted by Kroeber “Romantic Historicism” 150).
For Hume, Carlyle, and others, including Edward Gibbon, author of the popular Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1788), history was valuable because in explaining the past it allowed people to understand the present and perhaps even to shape the future. It offered them an explanation, and therefore it offered them hope. In a time filled with upheavals and the unknown, this was particularly important. In this, early nineteenth century Britain and early twenty-first century United States have much in common. In their respective times, each has been the dominant imperial power, engaged in ongoing wars framed in terms of good and evil (Roe 21). Both nations experienced rapid industrial and economic change, resulting in destabilizing fluctuations in peoples’ occupations, incomes, and lifestyles. In both times, history is used to explain the present and envision the future.
In eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain, history was not just an academic preoccupation, but also an artistic one. In fact, in art, historical painting was one of the most valued genres because people believed it “made great demands upon the intellect of both the painter and viewer.” Landscape painting, on the other hand, was less respected because many people thought it required merely technical skill and was “a simple process of recording nature’s likeness” (Venning 24, 26). It demanded less of both the painter and the viewer. Not everyone agreed. Two of the most famous and influential painters of this timer were John Constable and J.M.W. Turner; both argued for the importance and inherent worth of landscape paintings by creating landscape paintings that challenged and potentially instructed the viewer as much as a historical painting might (Venning 26). Both artists were part of one of the dominant creative movements of the day, Romanticism, which grappled with many issues in a new way, including the connection between past and present. Stephen Behrdenedt said of Romantic art, “Fundamental truths and principles are revealed through their appearances within ‘everyday life’. Like the poet, the Romantic artist renders the familiar unique by presenting it in an unaccustomed way to help the viewer to ‘see’ what has been there all along, hidden in plain sight within the ordinary external universe” (62).
While the common conception is of the Romantics focusing on nature and emotion, they also examined the interaction of past and present, indeed, according to one scholar, “the primary thrust of Romantic art was neither toward apocalypse not transcendence but toward the representation of reality as a historical process” (Kroeber, Romantic Historicism 149). He added that the Romantics made use of history in order “to challenge historical hierarchies” (Romantic Historicism 151). The Romantic view of history, if there was a singular view, did not focus on the “great men” on political and military history, nor was it merely a way to control the future:
Romantic historical vision is founded upon the impossibility of any definitive, that is
rationally unchanging, representation of historical phenomena. Of course the past no
longer exists; but even when the past was the present, its significant events were to a
considerable degree not perceivable and not comprehensible. For the Romantic, the
central problem is not the pastness of the past but its former presence. (Kroeber
Romantic Historicism 161)
In this philosophy, the past, like the present, is difficult to interpret, but this was one of the things that drew the Romantic artist or poet to it. Both Turner and Constable, although now famous for their paintings of contemporary England, also painted the past that had shaped it. Both commented upon the world in which they lived not only by painting what they saw, the present, but they also painted the past in order to understand the present. Their view of the past shaped how they saw the present, but their understanding of the present also colored how they interpreted the past, and this is evident in their paintings. Both of them painted the worlds they saw and imagined to make sense of the world in which they lived. However, despite living at the same time and in the same nation, “Turner and Constable scarcely see the world through the same pair of eyes and the golden radiance with which Turner characteristically fills his canvases is certainly not the same as the blue-green vibrancy we so often get from Constable” (Heffernan 134). This is true both literally and figuratively. Differing as Turner and Constable did in style and approach to art, it should come as no surprise that their views of politics and society also differed. One theme, however, united them; both painted images of the paradox of mutability. The sun that rises also sets, but it will rise again the next morning. All humans live and die in a short span of time, but something in our nature unites us with the long-dead. This theme appears in paintings by Turner and Constable of the past, Dido and Stonehenge respectively, but also in their paintings of the present, including The Fighting ‘Temeraire’ and Salisbury Cathedral.
John Constable was born in 1776 to a prosperous miller and his wife in Suffolk. Golding Constable, John Constable’s father, owned several mills and various properties in the area; later, when Constable painted Dedham Mill, he was painting his father’s land. Golding Constable originally intended his son to join him in his profession, but John Constable decided early in his life that he wanted to be a painter and began to pursue art, despite his father’s disapproval. By the time Constable was in his mid-twenties, he was studying art full time with his father’s permission (Allhusen 2-4). Despite the slow growth of his reputation and success in the English art world, he quickly became hugely popular and influential in French art; Charles X of France awarded him a Gold Medal for The Hay Wain in 1824, but Constable, who never travelled further from his original home than Derbyshire, did not go to France for the ceremony (Allhusen 5; Smart 36). Despite his insularity, however, “in dwelling upon the scenes of his boyhood in Suffolk, and by transmuting them in recollection, over the space of many years, into the fabric of an intensely personal art woven from deeply felt memories, Constable achieved a profundity of expression which is no less telling than the vast range of Turner” (Smart 36).
Two of Constable’s paintings that are considered to be among his most profound and that reveal his ideas about past and present most clearly are Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows and Stonehenge, both exhibited in the 1830s. Salisbury Cathedral was painted in 1831 and is “arguably the greatest of Constable’s major set-pieces … in a survey of the full cycle of his big landscapes, [it] may be seen as the climax,” and Constable himself reportedly said that it “conveyed the fullest impression of the compass of his art” (Parris 365, 367). It is an oil painting that measures 59 ¾ inches by 74 ¾ inches, and it currently hangs in the National Gallery in London. Constable painted it shortly after the death of his wife, and critics debate whether its dark skies show his grief, or whether the rainbow shows the beginning of hope and recovery (Parris 367). The foreground is bucolic and harmonious, but the background is comparatively dark and disturbing. This juxtaposition creates something of a paradox within the painting, as if the blessings of prosperity created by the establishments of the past, represented by the church, are under threat from the storm of the new ideas of the present. The art historian Michael Rosenthal analyzes this contrast:
One of [this painting’s] anomalous features is the combination of the Salisbury terrain
with a foreground which refers both to the Stour Valley and canal scenes, in particular
The Hay Wain and The Leaping Horse. Constable’s composition recalls the old format …
without invoking its iconography, for the motifs both of his pre-1822 East Anglia and of
the canal landscape he evolved after that date are under the tremendous threat represented
by the storm and lightening playing about the Cathedral itself. (Constable the Painter
This anxiety is understandable, given that “the 1820s was a period of political and constitutional uncertainty … Constable revealed that for him to advocate political reform was as good as calling for revolution” (Rosenthal Constable the Painter 144). It is no accident that churches figure prominently in his paintings, as the buildings symbolized the institution whose preservation and protection he believed was essential to the well-being of England’s citizens (Rosenthal Constable the Painter 146). As Constable worked on Salisbury between 1829 and 1831, one of its working titles was “Church under a cloud”, showing the threat he believed the proposed reform would cause. He himself wrote:
What makes me dread this tremendous attack on the constitution of the country is, that
the wisest and best of the Lords are seriously and firmly objecting to it – and it goes to
give the government into the hands of the rabble and dregs of the people, and the devil’s
agents on earth – the agitators. Do you think that Duke of Wellington & the Archbishop
of Canterbury … and the best & wisest men we have – would all have opposed if, if it
was to have [done] good to the country? I do not. (quoted in Rosenthal Constable the
Despite Constable’s concerns about the present, not everything about Salisbury is bleak; the foreground of the painting is one of the pastoral and bucolic scenes for which he is known. One author sees the influence of Rousseau’s ideas about the condition of man in the “State of Nature” and says, “as images of man dwelling in the bosom of nature, they [Constable’s paintings] could recall the happy pastoral (pre-agricultural) stage of civilization which Rousseau believed to be the state least subject to revolutions, the best state for man” (Honour 60). This interpretation is attractive and may have some merit, but it is also problematic, given that Constable’s scenes are inherently agricultural. Around this time, after the blockades of the Napoleonic Wars, agriculture was on everyone’s minds, and more agricultural landscapes were painted in Britain. Ploughmen and farmers gained “symbolic importance”, but this was paradoxical as “apprehension of the beauty Constable perceived in landscape was possible only from a particular station, not only that from which the view was taken, but also the one which permitted that perception of its values. This viewpoint was not necessarily the ploughman’s” (Rosenthal, Constable 79). In fact, given the economic difficulties and unrest of the 1820s after the end of the Napoleonic wars, some have called Constable’s peaceful and prosperous landscapes from this era “propaganda” (Vaughan 206).
A less problematic painting, at least on the surface, is Constable’s last great watercolor, Stonehenge. As in Salisbury, a rainbow lights the sky, but unlike Salisbury, this is not an agricultural scene in which the present dominates. Constable painted Stonehenge in 1836 based on a sketch he made in 1820; it is 15¼ by 22¼ inches, and it is currently on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum. He added a hare, perhaps symbolizing the “transience of life” on a separate sheet of paper and pasted it to the painting (Allhusen 23; Parris 490). Constable added an enigmatic inscription on the mount “the mysterious monument of Stonehenge, standing remote on a bare and boundless heath, as much unconnected with the events of past ages as it is with the uses of the present, carries you back beyond all historical records into the obscurity of a totally unknown period” (Parris 490).
Although not agricultural, this landscape is a good example of what Constable was trying to accomplish with his painting. In this work, he highlights “the chiaroscuro of Nature”, shows the interaction between Nature and Man, and encourages the viewer both to experience and to reflect (Honour 92). The common denominator between these different aspects is Nature; “in Constable’s paintings nature becomes a principal character in what action there is; we are expected to study and reflect upon the carefully delineated details of the natural world at least as much as we are the activities of the few humans present in those settings” (Roe 66). Constable argued for the “moral feeling” of landscape, a claim usually reserved for history paintings; indeed, he said that studying and painting nature would cause a person to be “impressed with the beauty and majesty of Nature … and, thus, be led to adore the hand that has, with such lavish beneficence, scattered the principles of enjoyment and happiness throughout every department of Creation” (Vaughan 132; Honour 87). In saying this, Constable responds directly to the nineteenth-century expectation that art should “arous[e] lofty moral sentiments” by praising virtue and pointing out vice (Denvir 9). What is unusual is his use of landscapes, rather than history paintings, to accomplish this.
In Constable’s paintings, light is always important, as he believed that light brought harmony; he spoke of “the light of nature, the mother of all that is valuable in poetry, painting or anything else where an appeal to the soul is required” (Honour 92). In Stonehenge, the viewer is invited to reflect not only on the hope for the future, shown in the double rainbows, but to join the tiny figures who contemplate the great stones. The stones themselves dominate the landscape – this man-made monument has become part of Nature itself. In the end, the painting is something of a paradox, showing both the brevity of man’s life and yet the potential durability of his accomplishments.
Constable himself lived only until 1837, dying fourteen years before his colleague, J.M.W. Turner, who had been born one year earlier than Constable in 1775. However, Turner did not come from a prosperous rural family, but a modest urban one; his father was a barber. While Constable had considerable formal training, Turner was mostly self-taught, although the Royal Academy accepted him as a young man, while Constable had to wait until much later in his life to become a full member (Roe 70). Unlike Constable, Turner did not leave writings that tell us about his politics, but his paintings are full of allusions to and interpretations of the various crises of his day (Hamilton 159). One of his famous paintings that shows his viewpoints is The Slave Ship or Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on, in which the slavers who have shown no regard for others’ lives are about to lose their own. Turner painted a much wider range of subjects than Constable, including the ancient world, the Continent, Napoleon and Wellington, the Houses of Parliament, and the Industrial Revolution. The style of his painting also varied more, from polished and detailed to the hazy, light-filled images that would make him one of the painters to influence early Impressionism most (Roe 70). Like Constable, he challenged the assumptions and values of the artistic world by painting profound and challenging landscapes and historical paintings that focused more on the landscape than on the human figure (Venning 26).
Despite their many differences, both Turner and Constable are considered members of Romanticism; in fact, these two artists are generally held up as the two most famous and influential English Romantic painters. While Constable celebrates the beauty and majesty of Nature in itself and as a teacher, Turner shows another side of the movement:
it is not difficult to see how Turner’s outlook – his fatalism, love of the elemental, of
grandeur and decay – accord with contemporary Romantic preoccupations. His ways of
painting, too – that suggestive method so often mistaken for indistinctness – seemed to be
the epitome of arbitrariness, a brilliant subjectivity only appropriate for those evocative
and imaginative subjects know as “romantic.” (Vaughan 173)
The world in which Turner lived was changing rapidly in many ways, artistic, social, and economic, and a modern art historian said of him, “Turner and his contemporaries knew … that they were living through an extraordinary epoch – one that witnessed, among other things, industrialization, urban growth, the rise of nationalism, constitutional reform, and above all, prolonged warfare with France” (Venning 9). Turner’s most famous painting of the modern world, and one that is often thought to be a commentary on many of these issues is The Fighting ‘Temeraire’, tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up, 1838, while one of his most famous paintings of history, albeit a mythological one, is Dido Building Carthage; or the Rise of the Carthaginian Empire. These two paintings differ in many ways, but they are united by Turner’s love of painting the sun and the sea and by their complex interplay of past and present.
The Fighting ‘Temeraire’ was painted in late 1838 or early 1839; it is an oil painting that measures 36 by 48 inches and hangs in the National Gallery today, and it depicts an event that occurred on September 5 and 6, 1838. The actual Temeraire was 98-gun ship of the line built in 1798 for the Napoleonic Wars. It was the flagship of the Channel fleet for three years, until the Peace of Amiens. In 1805, Captain Eliab Harvey commanded the Temeraire in the Battle of Trafalgar, England’s most famous naval battle. During the battle, the Temeraire saved Admiral Horatio Nelson’s flagship Victory, and her crew continued to fight even after she had been severely damaged and lost her mast, earning a memorable place in accounts of the battle (Venning 240). The Temeraire was repaired and continued to sail until being decommissioned in 1812, and spent the next twenty-six as a prison ship and then a victualling and training ship. In 1838, shortly after Victoria’s coronation, it was sold for scrap, dismasted, and towed up the Thames by two tugs to be disassembled in Wapping (Hamilton 176). Turner was not in London on September 5 or 6, but the event was reported in the newspapers, and it caught Turner’s imagination (Hamilton 177). He had opportunities to see the ship itself in London, and the newspaper reports of the towing were detailed, but Turner deliberately made several key changes to the scene, apparently both for appearance and symbolism. His Temeraire still has her masts, there is one tug instead of two, and the tug’s funnel has been moved. Because of where he has placed the funnel, the tug’s Union Jack is not visible, which is significant, given the caption Turner added to the Royal Academy Catalogue, “The flag which braved the battle and the breeze,/ No longer owns her”, an adaptation of the first few lines of a poem by Thomas Campbell. (Hamilton 178-179). Ironically, it is the tug, not the still-masted Temeraire, that flies a white flag. One art historian observes that the painting itself is made up of red, white, and blue, and of horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines, like the Union Jack itself (Hamilton 179).
In 1839, the critics received The Fighting ‘Temeraire’ very positively; William Makepeace Thackeray drew a comparison between the painting and a “magnificent national ode” (Venning 240). Since then, people have been attributing various meanings to the layers of symbolism. Some of the symbols are comparatively obvious; the sun is low in the sky and about to set; the presence of the new moon precludes it from being sunrise (Hamilton 178). Some have called it a vanitas painting, meant to remind us of the brevity of life, or compared it to a funeral painting (Venning 240). One of the major questions posed by The Fighting ‘Temeraire’ is that of culpability. Is there someone to blame for the passing of the ship? Is the tug the villain? Is this an indictment of the Industrial Revolution, or is it simply a reflection on how time passes and the world changes? During the Napoleonic Wars, the Temeraire was famous and useful, but with the wars over and new technology developed; her only contribution is her raw parts.
However, as tempting as it is to read The Fighting ‘Temeraire’ as a condemnation of what the present does to the past, we should be careful in doing so. While some have compared the tug to an executioner or considered to be deliberately ugly, it is important to remember that the steam engine was just as important, if not more so, as the navy to the dominance of Britain in world affairs at this time (Venning 240-241). Throughout his work, Turner celebrates the ingenuity that leads to scientific advances, but he depicts technology as “morally neutral”, something that can be used for good or for evil. Because “the painting achieves balance in both content and form: sail and steam; air and water; silence and noise; dignity and presumption, steadiness and urgency, the temporal and the eternal; change and adaptability, the past and the present, and my implication, the future”, it raises questions rather than answering them (Hamilton 179). It leaves us, the audience, room to engage fully with it and form our own judgment rather than telling us what to think.
Unsurprisingly, art historians consider Turner’s view of human progress and civilization to be “complex” (Venning 208). As a Romantic artist, Turner is not interested in creating an easy or simple painting, one that allows a viewer to receive it passively or to interpret it without ambiguities. “He portrays the full complexity of a specific perception of a particular event, but that means diffusely rendering curves of action, since both perception and what one perceives are live processes” (Kroeber “Romantic Historicism” 164). Turner is famous for responding to a contemporary art critic who did not like one of his paintings, “I did not paint it to be understood, but I wished to show what such a scene was like” (Bockemühl 72). While such a statement is an effective rebuttal, it is also a simplification. Experiencing what “a scene was like” leads to understanding it, or at least understanding better what the participants experienced. After all, “the Romantic historian perceives memorable events to be made up of what Wordsworth called ‘little, unremembered acts’ … The essence of history is its equivocal reconstructing of intrinsically doubtful experiences” (Kroeber, “Romantic Historicism” 160).
One of Turner’s most famous attempts to reconstruct a moment of the past is Dido Building Carthage; or the Rise of the Carthaginian Empire, first exhibited in 1815. This oil painting measures 61 by 91 inches and hangs in the National Gallery. It is hard to see now, but Turner included his name and the date on a wall in the left of the painting and “Sichaeo” on a tomb on the right. The inscription is an internal clue to the painting; Sychaeus was Dido’s first husband, and according to Virgil’s Aeneid, after her brother, Pygmalion, murdered Sychaeus, she left Tyre and founded Carthage (Butlin 94). Dido seems to have been one of Turner’s favorite paintings; he priced it so expensively that it never sold, and there is a story that he asked to be buried with it. However, when he wrote his will in 1829, Turner bequeathed both this painting and its companion The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire to the National Gallery, to be hung next to two landscapes by Claude Lorrain (Butlin 95-96). In 1815, the painting received positive reviews, but it was not until later that people began to look more closely at its possible layers of meaning, and it has inspired much debate and commentary in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (Butlin 94-95).
To begin with, what type of painting is Dido? Despite the historical topic, this painting is generally considered to be a seascape rather than a historical painting, in part because the people “are of ‘normal’ size and occupied with ordinary affairs. But their ordinariness … results in significant incongruities. What the figures do sometimes appears contradictory to the painting’s central event … [they] make problematic the relation of title to scene, thereby pointing up complexities in relation of form to content” (Kroeber, “Romantic Historicism” 154). Dido shows us Carthage almost, but not quite, at its beginning. Although some of the buildings are unfinished and construction materials lie on the ground, many buildings have already been completed. Dido and her architects are inspecting the city, but Turner chooses to show us a moment in which she turns away from the others to watch children launching toy ships.
Turner modeled his composition after that of a more conventional historical painting, Claude Lorrain’s Seaport, the painting next to which he intended it to be hung (Smiles 29). This juxtaposition was not merely homage to the earlier painter, nor was it solely self-aggrandizement. Karl Kroeber argues that “Turner wants us to see his specific accomplishment as part of an historical development. He wished his painting to be hung between paintings by Claude so that we might see his work … as commenting on current events through its role in art’s history” (Kroeber, “Experience” 324).
However, Turner’s commentary is not always easy to unravel. Some see Dido and its later companion piece, The Fall of the Carthaginian Empire, as establishing a comparison between the Punic Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. France, an empire weakened by decadence, like Carthage was, in Turner’s opinion, falls to Britain, the new “Rome”, the rising empire and maritime power (Smiles 29). However, others read the pair of paintings as pointing out to Britain the dangers of becoming wealthy and accustomed to luxury because of a empire (or an Industrial Revolution). After all, both Carthage and Britain had massive overseas empires focused on trade, and both struggled with “dissent and unrest” domestically (Venning 142). Is Britain meant to be both Rome and Carthage? Perhaps Turner meant it to be both and neither:
Turner shows the founding of the Carthaginian Empire, obliterated two centuries before
Virgil recreated it in his celebration of Imperial Rome, a Rome vanished for a millennium
and a half when Turner reconstructed the ambitious Phoenician beginning. To overlook
Turner’s comment upon imperialism would be as narrow-minded as repudiating the
cogency of his observation: the British Empire is no more. But Turner’s prophecy, at the
moment of the Empire’s burgeoning, is not an abstract, metaphysical, apocalyptic one.
He foresees the British Empire vanishing into a continuity of history. His visionariness is
historical. (Kroeber, “Experience” 325).
Turner further complicates his painting by the subtitle he added to the Royal Academy catalogue. The full title of the painting became Dido Building Carthage; or the Rise of the Carthaginian Empire – 1st Book of Virgil’s Aeneid. This unwieldy title accomplishes several things. It not only reminds the viewer forcefully of the classical origins of this story, but it also adds to the layers of complexity; Turner “brings together three registers of meaning in one image: the symbolic rising sun to signify the dawn of empire, the mythical Dido, and the historical Carthage” (Smiles 29). The title renders the painting ironic; it is full of light and of bright colors, but Dido’s future and that of her city have already been determined (Paulson 168). The beautiful sunrise will lead to a short day. The sun is one of the most common recurring images in Turner’s work; he once remarked, “The sun is God”, but this god is destructive as well as benevolent (Honour 96). This sun, which splits the composition into two halves, is another point of contrast with Claude’s paintings, “Claude’s centered suns illuminate, but Turner’s blind” remarked one art historian (Kroeber “Romantic Historicism” 155). The daily cycle of this blinding sun correlates to Turner’s belief that history in general and empires in particular followed a cyclical pattern (Venning, 206). Turner had a pessimistic view of history; he had a high view of his own talents, and saw his works as part of the “peak” that Britain was experiencing in the nineteenth century, but he did not expect it to last forever (Smiles 32; Venning, 233). Britain’s sun, like Carthage’s would one day set.
Turner’s blinding suns and “golden radiance” are indeed very different from Constable’s cloud-filled skies and “blue-green vibrancy” (Heffernan, 134). In many ways, they saw and painted different Englands. Constable saw the stability provided by traditional institutions and painted the rural peace and prosperity he desired for the present. Turner saw the changes around him, both technologically and politically, and seemed more inclined to accept at least some of them. Their different interpretations of the present stemmed from their pasts and from their interpretation of England’s past. For each of them, the past informed the present, just as the present shed light on the past. In different ways, both of these very different Romantic artists tried to show what they believed was the truth hidden in the mundane events throughout history.
John Constable Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows
John Constable Stonehenge
J.M.W. Turner The Fighting ‘Temeraire’, tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up, 1838
J.M.W. Turner Dido Building Carthage; or the Rise of the Carthaginian Empire
Further Discussion Questions:
How does the artist show the past/present? What does this say about the artist’s present? What does it say about our present?
What does this say about human nature?
What can we extrapolate about the artist’s point of view of politics/current events?
What was happening at the time that could be relevant to these works of art?
What is this painting about?
How subjective is the interpretation of a painting? How objective?
Compare and contrast – how and why are the paintings by these two artists similar and different? How can both artists be Romantic? What does this tell us about Romanticism?
How can we put together these disparate styles/approaches into one movement? Should we? How do the past and present interact in Romanticism?
What themes of Romanticism can we see in these works of art?
What is the role of the past in Romanticism? Why is that its role? What does that role say about us/the Romantics?
How does the past touch us? Shape us?
In what ways to do we create/shape/reshape the past?
How does the present reinvent the past?
How do past and present interact in the painting?
How do the past and present inform each other?
How does the past create the present?
What is the relationship of past and present?
How do the past and present interact?
How do the past and present change each other?
Other Seminars/Possible Lesson Plans
1) The students could be assigned to do outside research on what was happening at this time to make these paintings topical. Topics include: The First Industrial Revolution in Britain, The Napoleonic Wars, The British Empire, and The Great Reform Bill of 1832.
2) Multi-Disciplinary Seminar - “Almost every Romantic issue, theme, or aspect can be formulated, in some sense at some level, in both words and pictures, and … the double formation allows us to tie great writers like Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley to great artists like William Blake, John Constable, Samuel Palmer, and J.M.W. Turner … fields of comparison and contrast as the Nature verbalized in Wordsworth’s poetry and visualized in John Constable’s Suffolk landscapes, the sublime of infinity that supposedly links poet Shelley and painter J.M.W. Turner” (Eaves 236).
Pair the Constable paintings with the Wordsworth sonnet and the Turner paintings with the Shelley sonnet. After discussing the poems and paintings, students should come up with a definition of Romanticism and ask the following questions - How can we put together these disparate styles/approaches into one movement? Should we? What does this tell us about Romanticism?
From low to high doth dissolution climb,
And sink from high to low, along a scale
Of awful notes, whose concord shall not fail:
A musical but melancholy chime,
Which they can hear who meddle not with crime,
Nor avarice, nor over-anxious care.
Truth fails not; but her outward forms that bear
The longest date do melt like frosty rime,
That in the morning whitened hill and plain
And is no more; drop like the tower sublime
Of yesterday, which royally did wear
His crown of weeds, but could not even sustain
Some casual shout that broke the silent air,
Or the unimaginable touch of Time.
“Ozymandias” – Percy Bysshe Shelley
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!‘
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".
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