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When JMW Turner exhibited The Fighting Temeraire, tugged to her last berth to be broken up in September 1839 at the Royal Academy, he was at the height of his career. The painting depicts the ex Royal ship The Temeraire, crucial in the battle of Trafalgar, being towed by a steam tug to be broken up for scrap. Turner was a patriot and the painting had therefore a symbolic meaning. England was through the Industrial revolution and Turner was enthusiast about discoveries and inventions like the steam power or electricity. The painting symbolizes the dawn of an era and the birth of “modern times”.

The painting was a success and the few reproaches made were like the ones in the Blackwoods Magazine that “ it would have lost none of its beauty had it been more true”. To this frequent critic, Turner would respond that his “business is to paint what I see, not what I know is there.”

The comment of the art critic John Ruskin is based on his his writings about modern landscapists and especially Turner who he believed demonstrated “superior understanding of the "truths" of water, air, clouds, stones, and vegetation” here symbolized with emojis.

Turner called the work his "darling” and he kept it all his life, donating it to the nation.


Sources: I  Blackwoods Magazine, September 1839 I  Modern Painters John Ruskin (1843)

Turner and the Fighting Temeraire, 2019, Acrylic on canvas, 14" x 11" (36 x 28 cm)

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