Hanging in London’s National Gallery in 1871 during Monet’s time in London was Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed (1844) (see Plate 3), a painting that makes the Frenchman’s unconventional style look rather conservative.
Like the Impressionists, Turner was interested in modern life and painted the sort of contemporary scene that would become their trademark: a speeding steam train barrelling across a splendid new bridge that spanned the river Thames to the west of London.
It is the epitome of industrial modernity. Turner’s treatment is just as cutting-edge as the subject.
A golden veil of sunlit rain washes diagonally over the picture, obscuring almost all pictorial detail.
The black chimney rising from the front of the onrushing train is just about discernible, as is the bridge (painted in a dark brown) in the foreground; the rest of the scene is a blur.
The hills in the distance, another bridge to the left, and the far banks of the river are only faint outlines as the sun, rain, river, train and bridge dissolve into one tumultuous mixture of blues, browns and yellows.
It is a magnificent, expressive, freely painted celebration of life, a picture that still feels fresh and innovative today.
Constable said of Turner that ‘he seems to paint with tinted steam, so evanescent and so airy’.
And so he did, foreshadowing not only the atmospheric pyrotechnics that the Impressionists would set off, but also the bursts of pure emotion for which the American Abstract Expressionists would become famous 100 years after Turner painted Rain, Steam and Speed.
Much thanks to Will Gompertz’s book What Are You Looking At….some of the blog is directly taken from this fantastic book.