All the Colours of the Sun (4): Paintings of Poetry and Science

On April 27th 1775, two hours of spectacular effects were seen in the skies across south-east England. It was a solar halo, described in the Annual Register of Events as “a remarkable phenomenon representing in a most beautiful manner three suns”.

It was on or around this date that JMW Turner was born.


Up to now we’ve looked at the influence of Claude on Turner, and how Turner ‘translated’ that influence to the British landscape. Here we’ll look closely at a number of Turner’s paintings to explore his representations of the sun and sunlight, taking us from literature to science and back again, and from pure white to brilliant colour.

Two key references for this exploration are:

James Hamilton’s “Turner – A Life” (Sceptre, 1997) and

Richard Cohen’s “Chasing the Sun” (Simon & Schuster, 2010)


As we’ve noted previously, the Napoleonic Wars limited travel to Europe. However, there was a break of fourteen months – The Peace of Amiens (1802) – which allowed Turner to visit France, a trip that is remembered in

Turner, Joseph Mallord William; The Festival of the Opening of the Vintage at Macon, France; Museums Sheffield;

Very much an homage to Claude and, on the surface, a ‘romantic’ scene of French life, it is also a depiction of the River Thames seen from Richmond Hill (in fact seen from the back door of Joshua Reynolds’ house; see also “England: Richmond Hill on the Prince Regent’s Birthday” [1819; Tate]. Even more interestingly, this is the first time Turner makes us look directly at the sun in one of his paintings: “by the artist’s subtle trickery, the eye cannot stand it for long, as it never can stand looking at the sun in reality”, said one critic. And the closer in one looks, one sees that Turner has painted the sun as a small white disc – it’s the first time he has painted it as a solid entity, and it comes just two years after William Herschel’s sensational lecture on the sun: that it stood at the centre of the solar system as a “physical entity” with “openings, ridges, nodules, corrugations, indentations and pores.”

This connection of Turner’s paintings with Herschel’s theories is focused in Hamilton’s biography, and there’s an instructive review article on the Guardian website by Mark Brown: “Turner used science to paint the Sun” (2013).

Starting at the centre the white light of the sun expands out, shimmering in the blue sky, clean and bright – an effect replicated in a picture painted after Turner’s first trip to Italy, real Claudian country:

Turner, Joseph Mallord William; The Bay of Baiae, with Apollo and the Sibyl; Tate;

There is such a magical glow here; that golden landscape. Indeed it’s a scene that entranced Turner and there are numerous depictions in his sketchbooks. What particularly attracted him was the interconnection of landscape, history and mythology: this is where the Greeks had first established a colony in Italy, where Sybil had lived and where Apollo had offered her eternal life in exchange for her love. Knowledge and imagination fuse together here.

I really do think it’s this layering of fact and story that makes Turner’s paintings so continually fascinating – and that’s before we even mention the alchemy of paint: colour and texture.

Let’s take a very different scene:

Turner, Joseph Mallord William; Sun rising through Vapour: Fishermen cleaning and selling Fish; The National Gallery, London;

I’m intrigued by this word “vapour” in the title. Turner makes “vapour” a thing, articulating the existence and palpability of the stuff, the air, through which the sun is rising. And note how, in contrast to the clear light and blue skies of the previous paintings we’ve looked at above, here the light is getting ‘stuck’ as it tries to move through the vapour. So we see the yellow sunlight merging with the grey of the clouds. And there’s a texture here. The sunlight is ‘sooty’ and, towards the top of the picture, ‘lumpy’ – there are ridges of colour.

The sunlight is getting caught up in the vapour, as if it too is a solid entity.

This is “Mortlake Terrace, The Seat of William Moffat, Summer’s Evening, 1927” and now at the National Gallery of Art (USA) which describes:

The painting was done about eight years after Turner’s first stay in Venice, where his perception of nature and the physical world was profoundly changed by the city’s unique light and atmosphere. Light immobilizes the river and gives its surface a dreamlike shimmer. The stable mass of the classical gazebo, the delicate linear clarity of its architectural details, and the carefully depicted windows in the buildings on the left bank of the river coexist in Turner’s vision with the heavy impasto of the sun’s forceful rays that spill over the top of the embankment wall and dissolve the stone’s very substance.

Note that phrase “the heavy impasto of the sun’s forceful rays” – again, the sunlight has its own texture; more than that it is forceful, active as it “immobilizes the river” and “dissolves the stone’s very substance” as it hits the middle of the wall. (The effect of this is contrasted with the silhouette of the dog – which is in fact collaged on, stuck onto the canvas on Varnishing Day at the Royal Academy exhibition; Turner always did like a dramatic last-minute flourish!)

Another painting will highlight too Turner’s poetic understanding of sunlight, and perhaps also the role of the artist.

Turner, Joseph Mallord William; Apollo and Python; Tate;

Apollo is associated in Greek myth with both the sun and the arts, and here he is shown killing the dragon Python. This myth has been described as an allegory for the dispersal of the fogs and clouds of vapor which arise from ponds and marshes (Python) by the rays of the sun (the arrows of Apollo) – notes Wikipedia.

In Turner’s painting we have the golden arms of a sparkling-haloed Apollo in contrast to the Dragon’s lair. The emissary of light has vanquished darkness. And would it be too far to suggest that – filled with the spirit of Apollo – this was the role of the artist? Might we think of Turner as charging across the new day of art history with his paintings of sun and light? It maybe another myth, but it is often told that on his deathbed Turner declared:

“The Sun is God”.

And he was well aware that whilst the artist should work within the traditions of the Old Masters, the artist can be “subdued by their overbearing authority… in the study of art… something is the result of our [own] observation as well as those who have studied before us.” These are Turner’s words (quoted in Hamilton) and he clearly saw himself working within the tradition but having ideas of his own.

In terms of his paintings of the sun and sunlight then, Turner layers “meaning”, “symbolism” and his own “experiential” observation – from history and myth to contemporary scientific ideas. And when we think of the Royal Academy we are not referring to the institution and building as it is today. In Turner’s time the RA was at Somerset House on the Strand, a premises it shared with the scientists of the Royal Society. And it was there, in 1801, that William Herschel described the sun as “a solid globe of unignited matter.”

Turner has taken on these theories for, as we have seen, his suns are – in themselves – solid, unignited paint, whilst it is the rays around the sun that illuminate the scene. All this was of course a source of great debate. Those of a Romantic disposition were horrified that the scientists might try to deny them the myth and poetry of the sun. And Turner too recognised that science was not everything, that theory takes the artist only so far and then stops; what takes over is “the working of genius or the exercise of talent.” Thus the artist can go further than the scientist, merging fact and fiction into one vision.

To one of Turner’s most extraordinary late paintings “The Angel Standing in the Sun” (which really does take the poetic view) he appended a note:

Light is not only glorious and sacred, it is voracious, carnivorous, unsparing. It devours the whole world impartially, without distinction.

Turner, Joseph Mallord William; The Angel Standing in the Sun; Tate;

Here we see Archangel Michael appearing on Judgment Day with his flaming sword. In the foreground are figures from the Bible, including Adam and Eve weeping over the body of Abel; Judith standing over the beheaded Holofernes. This brings in – along with science, nature, observation, history, myth and poetry – another element, religion.

It’s as if the sun is the repository of humanity – all the histories and stories that humans have to make sense of the world are located there.


All The Colours of the Sun (4)

If you are enjoying this little series and are able to ‘donate’ – please do! Many thanks and all best wishes.


Next time we’ll explore the ‘alchemy’ that intrigues me most: Turner’s transformation of light into colour.

About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring the art and artists of early 20th century Britain (with forays elsewhere, in particular Russian Art History); the Art, Books & History Group meets monthly in Southend-on-Sea Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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