As is typical of the Romantic style of painting, Turner's masterpiece uses its constituent attributes, like form, texture, and color, to accentuate the mood and atmosphere of its depiction of a somber yet glorious moment in British military history.
Turner personally witnessed the retirement to salvage of the famed warship Temeraire, which to him represented the end of the era of wind-borne vessels for the emergence of the steam-propelled ships. Both types of craft are depicted in the painting, and their contrast captures Turner's reluctant feelings about technical progress and his longing for the preservation of a "simpler" and more elegant tradition, another Romantic preoccupation. The fabled warship is painted in pale, neutral colors, angelic and pure, its massive structure and intricate rigging rendered in detail that betray Turner's reverence and awe. The steamboat that dominates the foreground, on the other hand, is a dirty brown, and its smokestack, in contrast to the sailing ships' masts, belches smoke and fire into the otherwise blue sky at sunset. While the eyesore steamboat tugs the mighty, majestic Temeraire to its ignominious end, the metaphoric day is ending for British naval domination.
The Romantic melancholy inherent to the theme is suggested by the way the Temeraire seems to be disappearing as a ghostly specter as a new dawn rises on the other side of the world. The layers of brilliant color and brush effects with the radiance of the sunlight in the sky and on the sea on the right side of the painting balance the infernal spewing of the steamer and suggest the receding of past glory and luster.
To identify the Romantic elements in Joseph Mallord William Turner’s 1839 painting The Fighting Temeraire, one should probably establish the key elements of Romanticism first.
In general, Romanticism is regarded as a counter to the Enlightenment and its emphasis on rational thinking. Romantic art tried to get away from practicality and tidiness and infuse the world with some imagination and tumult.
Additionally, Romantic painters wanted to endow their works with feeling and emotion. They wanted art to reflect the subjectivity of the artist.
One integral subject to Romantic painters was nature. Nature was something that no amount of rationality or reason could totally control. More so, one’s relationship to nature was subjective. Their idea of nature depended on the artist’s thoughts and feelings at the time.
Based on Turner’s drab color palette, it’s possible to argue that Turner is transmitting his melancholy, pensive state at the time of the painting. His desolation might be reinforced by the large quantity of space in the painting. Besides the warship and the tugboat, the body of water is mostly vacant. The emptiness could also be seen as a way for Turner to propel the viewer to use their imagination and to fill, or not fill, the space up themselves.
One could also claim that the texture of the painting portrays its sorrowful mood. Think about how the look of the warship, the smaller boat, the water, and the sky communicates a wistful and enervated feel.
Conversely, if one examines the lines, they might say that their swirling force maintains the idea that nature has a power all its own. Think about how the sky seems to almost swallow the sun as the gathering clouds take command.
Identifying Romantic art is a bit tricky since, unlike other movements such as Impressionism, Neoclassical, or Expressionism, Romanticism does not have its own unique style. Instead, since Romanticism has to do with individualism and the expression of deep, intense feelings, characteristics in Romantic art will differ per Romantic artist in order to capture that artist's own uniqueness. However, there are a few elements Romantic works of art have in common, such as subject matter, line, color, and texture.
Romanticism emerged as a rebellion against Enlightenment ideals. The Enlightenment emphasized logical and scientific thought. Romanticism, seeing society as having been corrupted by Enlightenment ideals, placed more value on nature as the one thing that has not yet been corrupted. Hence, one thing Romantic art works share in common is that the subject matters are primarily nature and landscapes. Joseph Mallord William Turner is especially famous for his landscapes.
Romantic artists also shared in common the use of vibrant colors in order to capture intense emotions. In his painting The Fighting Temeraire, artist Turner used the vibrant color of sky blue and warm tones like gold to express the emotional scene. In this painting, he is depicting the British ship named the Temeraire being tugged back to shore after having fought bravely and turned the tides of the Napoleonic wars in the Battle of Trafalgar. The ship is being tugged back to shore to be turned into scrap because it is too damaged for further use. The scene is sorrowful because Turner felt being tugged to shore for scrap was a heartbreaking ending for such a glorious ship. Hence, he surrounded the ship and tug boat in a triangle of blue sky to help capture the sorrow of the moment; made the tug boat dark and black to capture its bleak, depressing role in the scene; and colored the ship, the waters, and setting sun in gold hues to capture the glory of the ship.
Romantic artists also used curving shapes and lines to help capture the intense emotions of their subjects. Apart from the ship's masts, Turner used curving lines to depict the Temeraire, as well as shadows to emphasize the curves. The curves of the ship help capture the historicity of the moment; the curvy lines create a dream-like effect that helps place the moment in days past, not in the present.
Finally, the brush strokes of Romantic artists were unbridled and emotional, which also helped capture the intense emotions in the pieces. In The Fighting Temeraire, Turner used very "light and loose" brush strokes that created a very hazy effect, as if we are watching the scene through a bank of fog ("The Fighting Temeraire Analysis"). The soft, hazy texture created by his brush strokes also helps set the moment in the past and capture Turner's longing for the glory of yesterday.