I don’t really feel drawn to the paintings of most old masters, but J.M.W. Turner is one big exception. My appreciation of his work is similar to what I feel about Arthur Rimbaud: both belong to the Romantic period, both pushed the boundaries and became important anchors for new movements that would see some of their roots reaching back to these protagonists, and both express a level of passion and emotion that seems to have come from the bottom of their souls.
Turners soul seems to have been drawn to the moods of nature and the power of the elements. Many of his pictures portrait the violent sid, certainly of nature, but sometimes also of human actions. It shows in his fascination for shipwrecks, fires, natural catastrophes or the murderous actions captured in The Slave Ship (1840), where he portraits the then common 19th century practice of slave traders throwing overboard the dead and dying human ‘cargo’ during the middle passage in the Atlantic Ocean in order to claim the insurance for ‘drowning’. The picture shows the violent power of the sea, the hands of black slaves in the water, can be seen still shackled, but also strange sea creatures representing the forces of nature punishing the guilty (Turner was hoping that painting such an emotive subject would help to assist the abolitionist campaign). Other examples for Turner being attracted by the violent power of the sea, are the Dawn after the Wreck (1840) or The Shipwreck of the Minotaur (1810).
Human beings in many of his paintings indicate his affection for humanity on the one hand (note the frequent scenes of people drinking and merry-making or working in the foreground), but also its vulnerability and vulgarity amidst the ’sublime’ nature of the world on the other hand. ‘Sublime’ here means awe-inspiring, savage grandeur, a natural world unmastered by man, evidence of the power of God – a theme that artists and poets were exploring in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. And God’s presence was not just seen in the violent upheavals of nature but also in ‘light’, the emanation of God’s spirit. In his later paintings, Turner refined this subject matter by leaving out solid objects and detail, concentrating on the play of light on water, the radiance of skies and fires. Although these late paintings appear to be ‘impressionistic’ and therefore a forerunner of the French school, Turner was striving for expression of spirituality in the world, rather than responding primarily to optical phenomena. (”The Sun is God,” he stated shortly before his death.)
[For more information on Turner click here (Wikipedia)]