All the Colours of the Sun (5): Light into Colour

Turner, Joseph Mallord William; Regulus; Tate;

“Regulus”, painted and exhibited in Italy in 1828 then reworked in 1837 (see Tate) is (yet another) astonishing painting in which Turner makes manifest the power of the sun. The painting we see today – as illuminated as it is – however has actually faded: “The painting was a mass of red and yellow of all varieties. Every object was in its fiery state…”

And its subject is as harsh as the glare. As the Tate tells:

Regulus was a Roman general who was captured by the Carthaginians. They sent him back to Rome to negotiate the release of Carthaginian prisoners. When he returned to Carthage having failed his mission, he was tortured by being left out in the sun with his eyelids sewn open.

In “Chasing the Sun”, Richard Cohen notes that Turner was now painting the sun white, “as in white-hot: he wanted to capture pure light”; indeed a contemporary critic saw that “the star has become a lump of white standing out like the boss of a shield.”

Meanwhile, the critic at the Spectator wrote:

Turner is just the reverse of Claude: instead of the repose of beauty – the soft serenity and mellow light of an Italian scene – here is all glare, turbulence and uneasiness. The only way to be reconciled with this picture is to look at it from as great a distance as the width of the gallery would allow, and then you will see nothing but a burst of sunlight [Tate].

And as Sam Smiles at the Tate notes: Turner is now painting “with the profound observation that the operation of light is the bedrock of vision.”

But if the sun is now a blazing white, it is also the source of colour.

Turner, as we have noted before, explored the developing scientific theories of the sun and light, and he does so with colour too (although he is never trapped by pure theory; as an artist he is always a colourist, a poet).

And there are two spectacular late paintings that stand side by side in their exploration of light, shade and colour.

Shade and Darkness – the Evening of the Deluge exhibited 1843 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

In “Shade and Darkness – the Evening of the Deluge” we have a great swirl of dark cloud over the shadowed foreground; to the right we can (just about) see animals in procession going to Noah’s Art which is almost dissolved in the light, a silhouette on the horizon at the centre of the picture. Meanwhile, in the lower left, is a small encampment – again barely visible, such is the drama of the situation (and the paint) – with a feeble lantern; they are the victims of this divine retribution. The middle of the painting is taken up with a blaze of light – white and yellow – the eye of the storm, God’s power. Whilst all around, in grey and blue, clouds pour down with rain over a benighted land.

And then, the morning after the night before:

Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis exhibited 1843 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

This painting’s title is a sort of summary containing so much of what interested Turner: Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis – science and theory, light and colour, great biblical dramas and the shifts of human fate and history. Here we see Moses writing Genesis in the midst of drifts of painted skies, at the centre of a globe of paint radiating with rainbow colours (the rainbow symbolising God’s new covenant with humanity). It’s an extraordinary vision as the stories of the Old Testamant are recalled. Just below Moses is a snake hanging upon a staff – the snake from the Garden Of Eden? To the right is a crowd of small figures rising up from the waters of the receding deluge, the men, women and animals that had perished in the flood. It all seems a bit grim perhaps. But this is an optimistic painting: humanity is born again in the radiance of grace – although if we see that globe as a ‘bubble’ then there is always the threat it might burst. And that snake on the staff? A shadow of the Crucifixion to come?

The association of hope with bright colours though leads us to that first part of the title: Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory):

The allusion [is] to Goethe’s [book] Fahrbenlehre …Goethe’s theory of a colour-circle divided into ‘plus’ and ‘minus’ colours: the former, reds, yellows and greens, were associated by Goethe with gaiety, warmth and happiness, while the latter, blues, blue-greens and purples, were seen as productive of ‘restless, susceptible, anxious impressions’ [see Tate]

And we can certainly see this ‘psychological’ division explored by Turner in these two paintings of the deluge. He was continually curious; his paintings layered with ideas that impress themselves in texture and colour as much as subject and symbolism.

In an earlier discussion we looked briefly at

Joseph Mallord William Turner Ulysses deriding Polyphemus – Homer’s Odyssey 1829 Oil on canvas, 132.5 x 203 cm Turner Bequest, 1856 NG508

The sun on the horizon appears, possibly, to contain the silhouette of Apollo riding the chariot of dawn into the sky. But, now, looked at the colours of that sky. The rays of the sun are radiating lines of light – beams ranging out like the lamp of a lighthouse – as if orchestrating the blues and pinks, the yellows and oranges of sunrise.

When it was exhibited it was much criticised: “the perfection of unnatural tawdriness. In fact it may be taken as a specimen of colouring run mad – positive vermilion – positive indigo – and all the most glaring tints of green, yellow and purple contend for mastery of the canvas, with all the vehement contrasts of a kaleidoscope of Persian carpet… truth, nature and feeling are sacrificed to melodramatic effect.”

Well, I have to say, I beg to differ! (And it is fascinating to use the ‘zoom’ control available on the National Gallery website to see these colours in all their glory).

The website also mention Turner’s interest in Goethe’s theories, but we should also remember that the Royal Academy shared Somerset House with the Royal Society and it is through his contacts with scientists that Turner learnt of theories about the sun and about colour and light with people such as Humphrey Davy, Charles Babbage and Michael Faraday. He also knew Mary Somerville whose paper “The Magnetic Power of the Violet Rays of the Solar Spectrum” had to be read at the Society in February 1826 by her husband William, as women weren’t admitted. In Mike Leigh’s film “Turner” (2014), Mary comes to Turner’s house in order to explain her ideas. And it is due to her work that, in Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus, Turner paints those tones of pale violet in the sky. The ship is sailing east, so we are looking northwards and Mary Somerville’s experiments had shown that the colour violet, at the end of the rainbow spectrum, had the power to magnetize a needle and make it point due north.

The theory was eventually refuted, yet Mary’s work would continue to influence Turner’s art.


Increasingly expressive, always curious, Turner’s art is fascinating in terms of light and colour, texture and form. For the most part in this “All the Colours of the Sun” series we have focused on oil paintings. Next time, in our final discussion, we’ll look at the equally experimental and explorative watercolours Turner painted during his late-summer visits in 1827 to East Cowes Castle and Petworth House.

All The Colours of the Sun (5)

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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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