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The End of an Era

September 8, 2013

I’ve never gone out on a limb to make an assertion such as this, but J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) was one of the greatest painters to ever hold a brush, and his masterpiece, The Fighting Temeraire, is beyond doubt one of the greatest canvases ever created. With this painting the artist managed to encapsulate the emotions of an entire nation as British military dominance faded into little more than a colorful sunset. Someone recently asked me if it was necessary to understand a painting’s background to appreciate it; in this instance it certainly helps.


The Fighting Temeraire was a ship in Nelson’s fleet. At Cape Trafalgar off the coast of Spain in 1805 Nelson lost his life annihilating Napoleon’s fleet, thereby destroying the Emperor’s plan of invading England. The Franco-Spanish fleet lost twenty-two ships, without a single British vessel being lost. This painting shows an event that took place thirty-three years later.


The old war ship is all that remains of Nelson’s fleet. It has been stripped of its ninety-eight guns and most of its metal fittings and is little more than a ghostly spectre, a shadow of its former glory. The full title of this masterpiece is The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her final Berth to be broken Up, 1838.


In 1838 people crowded the shoreline to watch the last remaining symbol of British naval power being pulled to its doom. Spectators were well aware of the role HMS Fighting Temeraire played in securing a future where British citizens could rest comfortably in their beds at night without worrying that Bonaparte’s army was about to land on British soil.


But Turner was not only thinking about the past; he was also focusing on the future. His brushes oozed love as he depicted the splendid details of the phantom ship as a brilliant sun sets on British naval glory, but the artist also provides a glimpse into the future. Note the smoke belching tug, scurrying like a water bug as it muscles the noble ship to its grave. No majestic sails or national symbolism, just an artless coal-fed machine pointing to an era dominated by an Industrial Revolution that will condemn millions to poverty and tuberculosis wards.


In 2005 the British public voted this the country’s most beloved painting. Powerful sentiment lurks beyond the brilliant colors and powerful brushstrokes, feelings familiar to fretting Americans as our country seems to be slipping from its place of prominence on the world stage.


Turner was considered well past his prime when he created this painting, a doddering old man whose skill with a brush was reduced to hazy and blurry embarrassments. In truth, he was still a painter in supreme control of his art. I was reminded of this painting when I saw images of our space shuttles being hauled to various museums around the country.


Our space program has assured The United States a prominent place in history, just as ships like The Fighting Temeraire prompted the eighteen hundreds to be dubbed the British Century. As an artist I can’t help admiring the skillful manipulation of paint, the effortless atmospheric rendering of light and space, while at the same time feeling a foreboding for my own country.


We have no great artist today to make us stop and reflect on former greatness or make us pause to consider the future galloping toward us. Is the sun already setting on America’s greatness? Few things pass more quickly than glory. Turner knew this. Do we?




I doubt it. History has a tendency to repeat itself. We fail miserably at learning from our past and doomed to make the same mistakes. Just saying.
By: Daniel LaFrance on September 8, 2013
I did a pastel copy of one of Turner's oils--the man was a genius!!
By: fishducky on September 8, 2013
What a breathtaking, melancholy painting. Thanks for the background. As the British Century gave way to the American Century, I wonder how history will record the 21st? As I said, melancholy. The reality of repeating history fascinates me.
By: Al Penwasser on September 8, 2013
some serious pondering, here. thanks for the look into history, too.
By: TexWisGirl on September 8, 2013
I didn't know the background to this painting, believe it or not, and I am English. I don't think we can know if America's power is fading but it feels as if it might be.
By: Jenny Woolf on September 8, 2013
Sometimes I'm sad that I won't be able to know how this time in history will be viewed (well, I guess if I live a REALLY long time I'll know)
By: The Bug on September 8, 2013
I waiver between having faith that we will come to our senses and keep our country strong and being totally in despair that the people in charge are running us into a ditch that we will never be able to get out of. I love the explanation tying British history and J.M.W. Turner's painting.
By: Cheryl P. on September 8, 2013
I love that I can come to your blog and get a lesson in art and history! I had never heard of J.M.W. Turner - but I agree, it would help to know the background to understand this particular painting.
By: Pixel Peeper on September 8, 2013
This is a wonderful post.
By: Snowbrush on September 8, 2013
I don't know much about history. Or painting. But I yearn for the glory days of the space race.
By: Val on September 8, 2013
I'm amazed at how you explain a painting and then relate it to the situation today. I also question whether Americans have reached a peak and are in decline. You've given us much to think about.
By: Red on September 8, 2013
I love learning about art and Ricky Delgado from you. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on September 8, 2013
I echo Pixel Peeper's comment! And similar questions about America's greatness have been on my mind the past year or so.
By: on September 8, 2013
America's power has been fading for some time. Eventually China will take over just as they've taken over our entire industrial base.
By: PT Dilloway on September 8, 2013
Wonderful history lesson, Stephen. I'm not sure if the US is getting "weaker", but the rest of the world is definitely getting stronger in many different spheres. Our military strength can't be challenged mano a mano, but that is no longer the way a foe will challenge us. I definitely think we're realizing we can no longer call all the shots in the world, and we shouldn't. Prime example: There is nothing we can do to "fix" the mess in the Mid-East. Face it.
By: Scott Park on September 8, 2013
It's always only a matter of time until the cycle changes.
By: mimi on September 8, 2013
Deep thoughts to ponder, indeed. A haunting painting~
By: Shelly on September 8, 2013
great countries such as ours will continue to slide into becoming a 3rd world country unless we stop throwing money at the Middle East and begin to repair our country Beginning with educating everyone with excellence in mind for all citizens not just the elite few. I am sick and tired of Washington DC politicians who dictate to us how we should live while being so damn hypocritical. Starting at the top. Quite frankly I am disgusted .
By: Kathe W. on September 9, 2013
whoops- pushed enter before I was done- I so enjoy reading your blog- if you taught Art History you would have a sold out class. Wonderful post !!
By: Kathe W. on September 9, 2013
The USA had a chance to be a great country. Redneck conservatism seems to have put an end to the dream.
By: AC on September 11, 2013
A splendid timeless painting which captures theessence of mortality of life in all its shades.
By: John on September 11, 2013
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