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In 500 words -Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth by JMW Turner

English Romantic painter, printmaker and watercolourist Joseph Mallord William Turner was known for his expressive landscapes and violent maritime renderings. Born in London in 1775, JMW Turner was a child prodigy, studying at the Royal Academy of Arts at age 14 and exhibiting his first work there at 15. His more mature work is characterised by the application of expressionistic layers of paint, luminous colourization and dramatic tangles of subject matter.

Snow Storm is Snow Storm: Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water, and going by the Lead. The Author was in this Storm on the Night the "Ariel" left Harwich. Turner

Inspired by shipwrecks, storms, fires, and weather phenomena, Turner was captivated by the acute violence of nature. Painted in 1842, JMW Turner was 67 years when he completed Snow Storm. The painting stands as a potent enquiry into the relationship between nature and new steam boating technology, a theme Turner revisited numerous times over the course of his life.

Snow Storm depicts a paddle steamer seized by a cyclonic snow storm, bold streaks of weather unravelling around a surging ship. A few scant highlights illuminate the paddles of the boat, while a pale amorphous light closes in, framing the stricken vessel. Smoke from the ship’s chimney escapes across the sky, mirroring the waves at the sea – a turbulent visual vice.

JMW Turner originally worked as a watercolourist, he adopted oils much later in life, translating the techniques he learned from watercolours to oil painting. Unmatched in his portrayals of the natural world clashing with human-made technology, JMW Turner rigorously explored the calamitous intersections of the organic and artificial, his techniques positioning his work in the forefront of English painting, with Impressionists like Claude Monet also studying his methods.

The complete title of Snow Storm is Snow Storm: Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water, and going by the Lead. The Author was in this Storm on the Night the "Ariel" left Harwich. Turner later told a story about the background of the painting:

I did not paint it to be understood, but I wished to show what such a scene was like; I got the sailors to lash me to the mast to observe it; I was lashed for four hours, and I did not expect to escape, but I felt bound to record it if I did [1]

Most commentators now doubt the literal interpretation of this story[2]. However, JMW Turner's account does contribute to a vivid representation of wild elemental forces. Early critical response to Snow Storm was largely negative, with one critic calling the painting little more than “soapsuds and whitewash”[3]. However, Victorian critic John Ruskin, dubbed the father of modern art criticism, commented in 1843 that JMW Turner's painting was:

one of the very grandest statements of sea-motion, mist and light, that has ever been put on canvas[4]

Snow Storm has come to be viewed as a radical expression of ethereal, volatile and atmospheric forces weighing on the vulnerability of human infrastructure. By juxtaposing hatched strokes with expansive washes of colour, JMW Turner's Snow Storm evokes a hauntingly subliminal experience as we inevitably insert our imagined selves into the same stricken vessel. Here, the enthusiasm for new technological advancement is disrupted by the unyielding forces of nature that still exist far beyond the reach of human control.


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