Turner’s Venice: Translucent, mysterious, sublime

Among Venice’s many distinguished artistic visitors, the English Romantic painter JMW Turner stands out as someone whose Venetian experience was more about capturing a mirage than a real place. During his three seminal trips to Venice in 1819, 1833 and 1840, Turner drew on his experience as a marine painter and his brilliance as a watercolourist to create the views of Venice, in which the foundations of the city’s landmarks merge into the waters of the lagoon by means of delicate reflections. In these blurry, monochrome watercolours, there are glimpses of 1950s American colour field painting but this is misleading. On account of such an intimate vision of Venice, Turner’s work was duly championed by John Ruskin as coming straight from the artist’s heart.

Venice would seem an ideal fit for Turner whose seascapes had earned him the sobriquet of “the sublime artist of the sea”. The conventional view of his marine paintings, however, is one of turbulence, even violence. Turner’s waves tend to swirl in great arcs, the white foam is painted in thick, short brush strokes and the boats and their occupants are swept up in the elemental power of the storm. What attracted this artist to the sea was not just its presence, but the force within. The romantic and mysterious views of Venice at dusk or by moonlight are worlds away from Turner’s stormy seas. These lustrous and serene views of the floating city and its gilded buildings sparkling in the Grand Canal are quintessentially romantic as in evocative of mood and Romantic as in defined by an era.

If Venice was an ideal subject was Turner, watercolour was the ideal medium. It provides an economy that few other techniques could match to evoke a seascape. For Turner, a broad sweep of cobalt blue, orange or ochre, applied across a wet page with a few strokes of a loaded brush, set the scene. The dampness of the paper gave him a valuable few seconds to manipulate the vibrant watercolour before it dried: enough time to add a disorderly flourish with the tip of the same brush to indicate a boat sailing into the picture from one side and to work a neater, calligraphic pattern into the paint to suggest the rolling breakers of an agitated but unthreatening sea. Such details are always only implied and left to the viewer’s imagination.

For this very reason, modern taste has tended to view Turner’s masterful effects of light, air, wind and colour as pure abstractions. This is why his watercolour sketches are so often discussed in relation to the non-figurative painting that emerged and flourished during the 20th century. Yet, for all their abstract appeal to modern eyes, these Venetian views and other Turner watercolours made in the same spirit are nothing like Rothko’s colour fields; they are determinedly figurative. Romantic art focused primarily on feelings and moods, including spirituality and mystery. Its brushwork was generally looser and less precise, but the subject matter remained firmly representational, with cityscapes and landscapes as popular genres for capturing manmade and natural beauty.

As the ultimate Romantic, Turner finds a true echo of his own sensibility in the unique qualities of the sublime floating city in his Venetian watercolours. These images of Venice were quickly recognised by their first viewers among the Victorian Romantics, including Ruskin, as some of the most magical and luminous works of their time. Ruskin, who for all his preoccupation with decline, is known for its extreme perception and his ability to put it into words, clearly saw himself in Turner’s vision which captures and expresses some of the most inchoate and funereal qualities of the Venetian experience. Ultimately, both of these Romantics and Victorians recognise in the squalid beauty of Venice a foreboding of the fall of the British Empire.