Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway
1844 by Joseph Mallord William Turner
The National Gallery
Before Monet’s harmonies of colour – postcard 45 – there was Turner, who went so far as to offend his contemporaries in the lengths he took to create not the subject itself, but the atmosphere in which it was seen. Though the title Rain, Steam and Speed is more subject based than many of Turner’s other titles – the Nocturns, for instance – it is still telling of the way Turner approached his painting. Each word is less concrete, and more visually ambiguous, than the previous — rain evaporates to steam before becoming lost in speed. The painting is a celebration of atmosphere rather than reality, so we may feel the train shooting past in a momentary haze. This feeling is cast in blue and gold: the blue of the sky is diluted in cloud, light and airily pale; gold then permeates through, warming the coolness of rain, spreading to deep amber in the depth of water and melting to darkness in the matter of the bridge. The train itself is small and black, juxtaposing the illumination of its surroundings, pushed on by its dark lines of determination. Unlike the Impressionists’ painterly movement, Turner’s style has a wonderfully magical quality in its subtlety: brush strokes are barely visible, with lines created only to form the rays of light that stream from the sky. It is this atmospheric invisibility that gives Turner’s work a feeling of awe; the painting is a celebration of a moment – the overwhelming and affecting sentiment of a scene.