Sheerness as seen from the Nore, 1808
Joseph Mallord William Turner, British, 1775–1851
Oil on canvas
Canvas: 41 1/8 × 58 7/8 in. (104.5 × 149.6 cm)
Museum purchase funded by the Alice Pratt Brown Museum Fund, the Brown Foundation Accessions Endowment Fund, Isabel B. and Wallace S. Wilson, The Brown Foundation, Inc., and Ann Trammell
Habits of Mind
- OVERCOME FEAR Overcome fear of ambiguity / fear of failure or being wrong / fear of the unknown
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
- COMMUNICATE Verbalize ideas, thoughts, feelings / ask provocative questions / ask for support
Turner Meets Google Earth
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
Joseph Mallord William Turner is generally regarded as one of the most important landscape painters of the 19th century. He began his career at the British Royal Academy of Art at the age of fourteen. There he discovered his talent for landscape. He became a full member of the Academy by the age of 29 and later a professor. Although he is commonly known for his oil paintings, he is considered one of the great masters of British watercolor painting. Turner was successful early on, selling enough work to financially secure his future, thereby allowing him to travel and attempt new painting styles. As he grew older, Turner became reclusive and eccentric, which is evident in his later style, in which form becomes less recognizable and color and mood dominate.
Sheerness as Seen from the Nore depicts a scene as viewed from the great Nore anchorage for naval and merchant ships at the confluence of the Thames and Medway Rivers. The sun rises majestically over the scene, lighting the brilliant sky and swirling clouds with bursting colors of yellow, gray, and gold. The dark tonality of the work is contrasted by the animated sea, where each rolling crest and trough of the ocean rocks the boats. Standing guard in the background, an old man-o-war ship is silhouetted against the dawn. The early sunlight spreads across the distant shoreline to the Kentish town of Sheerness. A small fishing boat in the right forefront of the painting looks as if it is going to be swallowed by the turbulent swells of the ocean. Turner probably viewed this scene from a small boat, similar to the one in the painting, allowing him to create the picture from a low viewpoint and adding to its overall feeling of immediacy.
Early on, Turner was greatly influenced by the seascapes and landscapes of 17th-century Dutch artists and the Italianate landscapes by artists such as Claude Lorrain (1604–1682). His first oils, such as Sheerness as Seen from the Nore, are somber in color, but reveal his preoccupation with the vivid effects of light, weather, and sky. English art critic John Ruskin described Turner as the artist who could most “stirringly and truthfully measure the moods of nature.” His distinctive style of painting, using watercolor technique with oil paints, allowed him to create lightness, fluency, and ephemeral effects. He achieved this by saturating the canvas with wet paint and applying layers upon layers of pigment while working frenziedly to produce form.
In 1805 Napoleon Bonaparte declared war on England. On October 21 of that same year, the British Royal Navy won the most significant naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars, the Battle of Trafalgar, which dramatically confirmed the naval supremacy that Britain had established during the 18th century and ended any possible threat of invasion by France.
Although England won the battle, the country lost its most important war hero, Admiral Horatio Nelson. Along with all of England, Turner mourned this loss and traveled to the town of Sheerness to pay respects to Nelson’s remains aboard his ship the HMS Victory, which was initially docked on the Nore. Here Turner made several composites of the scene and the anchored ship, making reference to the HMS Victory and the revered Admiral Nelson.
- What are your initial reactions to the painting? What are the most eye-catching parts of it? What emotions do you feel in relation to those things?
- Look closely at the sky. Moving from left to right, describe the shapes and colors of the clouds using your most descriptive language. Where is there light, shadow, warm tones, cool tones, volume, emptiness?
- Repeat the same exercise with the ocean as Turner has painted it. What colors does he use in which areas? Which parts of the ocean are calm, and which are turbulent? How can you tell the difference?
- Now, look at the characters and objects Turner has included in the scene. Where are the people in this story? How big are they in comparison to the ocean? How many people are in each area—the small boat at front, the large boat at left, or the city at right?
- Analyze the perspective and point of view of this painting. Where do you think the artist viewed this from? How can you tell?
- Keeping in mind the many points of view and perspectives present in this painting, imagine a narrative for the scene. Try imagining that you are a person in one of the ships or in the city. What do you see? What are you thinking? What are you smelling, tasting, feeling?
- What is the relationship between man and nature in this painting? Is it the same in all areas of the painting? Use details from the painting to support your answer.
- Three years before Turner painted this, England won the most significant naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars, the battle of Trafalgar. It was a huge military victory, but the much-loved Admiral Horatio Nelson lost his life. Nelson’s ship, the HMS Victory, was docked at a naval base in the town of Sheerness, known as the Nore. Turner visited the Nore to pay homage to the war hero. How does this change your interpretation of the piece? Does this scene tell a story about England and its lost hero?
- Do you think that this is more a work of homage to Admiral Nelson, or more a commentary on man’s relationship to nature? Defend your answer using visual clues from the painting.
- Turner was well-respected in his day, and his works would go on to influence famous Impressionists like Claude Monet. Why do you think this is so?
- Observe the work of art, from a geographical viewpoint:
- Use google earth to locate the Thames and Midway Rivers
- Locate Sheerness and the Nore anchorage
- What geographical features contribute to the Nore being used as an anchorage?
- Why do art historians conclude that Turner probably viewed this scene from a small boat? Using the map, where do you think Turner could have been positioned? Support your answer with evidence from the work of art and google earth.
- Assume the role of a meteorologist giving a weather report. Describe the weather for the town of Sheerness, as if you were reporting from the moment captured in this painting. The report should include specific climatic interactions such as:
- The sun provides energy that drives convection in the atmosphere and oceans. How does this influence wind and waves?
- How do global patterns influence atmospheric movement? Show evidence of this in the painting, referring to high and low pressures and fronts.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider