The purest patches of light are not seen in the sky but in a handful of quiet rooms in a museum on the banks of the Thames in greying old London. I saw this light once and it burns in memory.
“The sun is God,” J.M.W. Turner often said, perhaps because he grew up seeing so little of it. London in the late 18th century was choked with smoke belching from the factories that had jumpstarted the Industrial Revolution. Born in April 1775, Turner, the shy son of a barber and a madwoman, saw the sun through a sky darkly. Turner’s peer, John Constable would later liken this industrial sun to “a pearl through burnt glass.” Yet when Turner rendered his sun-god on canvas, he gave it all the reverence of a young acolyte. The results are paintings that scorch the eye with wild, raw, searing light. Turner’s suns are no larger in their skies than the sun itself. His tuppence discs rise in vapor, scorch through clouds, set over reflecting rivers, yet their radiance fills the horizon, blinding and blazing across fields of vision in ways the actual sun can only dream of.
Some years ago, I stood in those rooms at Tate Britain and stared down the sun. To gaze into a Turner is to rise like Dante toward paradise, moving closer, closer to a divine light. You can stare for minutes on end. That’s why Turner’s light beckons us more surely than the sun itself — because we can’t look away but for once, we don’t have to. And so I peered into Turnerlight and felt its radiance ignite me. This was light, primeval light as in “Let there be…” Turner, wrote the critic William Hazlitt, “delights to go back to the first chaos of the world, or to that state of things when the waters were separated from dry land, and light from darkness.”
But do you have to go to London to see Turnerlight? Anyone who has seen a Turner in person and later in a book would scoff at a mere replication. But books don’t emit their own light. What about a backlit screen? How would Turner look on an iPad? First answer: small. But what if I hooked the device to my 29-inch flatscreen TV? Would the sun “rising through vapor,” as in one Turner title, appear godlike when rising through pixels?
A Google search. A click of IMAGES. And the same white doohickey that lets me watch Netflix on a larger screen quickly blew Turner up to size. For this alone, I should have bought the 60-inch model but now I had to make do. I turned out the house lights, drew the shades, and found my favorite Turner — “Caernarvon Castle.” This watercolor, finished in 1799, was the first Turner we recognize as “a Turner.” In it, the old Welsh castle is backlit by a scalding sun. Dead center in an afternoon landscape, the settling egg-yolk melts into a simmering sky. “Caernarvon Castle” flares with a heat that singes the air and ripples the river below. This is more than painterly light; this is the light of an artist unafraid to worship the sun, who suffered both its joy and its absence. But backlit? Onscreen?
Turner’s Caernarvon Castle
One thousand and eighty pixels certainly strengthened Turner’s light. A floating butterball glowed in both sky and river yet still did not rival the sun. There was something electric, something cold in this digitized Turner. I tried other versions of the same castle — my Google page had dozens. Some were flat and matted, others mere caricatures, like sunlight seen not through a burnt glass but through a jar of olive oil. The plenitude of suns made me wonder which was closest to Turner’s original. But none was the original. Perhaps if I zoomed in.
I had done this at the Tate, stepping to within a foot of a few canvases, plunging myself into the sun. Now I double-clicked. The image expanded, taking me Mercury-close. Now I saw two sundogs I hadn’t noticed, and Turner’s delicate blend of a dozen yellows into one. But just as in London, I was seeing paint, not a painting. I downsized, then picked another Turner, and another.
The Venice paintings had the best backlighting. Visiting Venice in 1819, Turner marveled at a milky sky shimmering above canals and Campanile. He came home to London bearing Venice’s afterglow, and was soon painting a light too bright for his time. In “Venice, Looking East from the Guidecca: Sunrise” (above) a platinum blonde horizon floods a faint skyline of cupolas and cathedrals. Another Venice painting smears the sun across a vanilla backdrop. On my 29-inch screen, these paintings almost captured Turner’s god. The fauvist blue and maroon, never meant to mirror actual light, came through in brilliant colors. But still, this wasn’t Turnerlight.
Turner painted light for the rest of his life, expanding, exploring, captivating himself but losing his audience. England scoffed. Queen Victoria thought Turner to be quite mad. But in 1870, two young French painters visiting London took notice. Their names were Pissarro and Monet. By then, Turner had been granted his final wish. In 1855, confined to a wheelchair in his studio on the Thames, he asked to be moved to the window. There he saw his god, and there he passed into the light…
J.M.W. Turner’s light can be replicated in books, brightened when backlit, but you have to go to London to see it. The Tate Britain is a short walk from Westminster Abbey. You have to go to the light.