A little Art History

A Comparative Essay on the Similarities of Turner and Cropsey, by Liane Engstrom


William Turner (1775-1851), painted The Slave Ship in response to a well known and troubling account that happened at sea. In a time where slavery was very real, a captain made a decision to dispose of sick slaves by tossing them overboard. Sadly, they were worth more on an insurance claim than to sell sick and diseased. This event caused fierce political issues and debates across England and abroad.


Joseph Mallord William Turner, an English painter, lived within the very place that this heated debate erupted. He is known for elevating landscape painting, delivering it on par with that of historical painting, which is precisely what he accomplished here.


The Slave Ship, William Turner

Turner was personally outraged by this event and harnessed his own emotional state to paint with such ferocity. He entered the Royal Academy of Art in London at a very young age. Showing great skill in drafting architectural works, Turner mastered their representations within his drawings and paintings. But even more so, William Turner became recognized as an artistic genius for his vivid color use and stunning ability to capture the moods of nature.



Jasper F. Cropsey (1823-1900), painted The Clove - A Storm Scene in the Catskill Mountains in 1851, in which will stand in comparison to the other. Cropsey was an American painter who after several years of traveling across Europe and residing in London for a time, returned home and became a member of the Hudson River School.


The Clove - A Storm Scene in the Catskill Mountains, by Jasper F. Cropsey

Cropsey also co-founded the American Society of Painters in Water Colors as well as opening his own studio in New York. He is known for his use of vivid colors and idealizing the landscapes that he painted while becoming an expert at precision form and line use. Cropsey also showed interest in architecture and in fact was trained as such, with his own office and business, until he was elected as an associate member at the National Academy of Design. He then honed his skills exclusively towards painting once his work became widely recognized.


The Slave Ship, painted by William Turner, is an explosion of emotion. His use of vivid colors and energizing swirls of brush strokes create a terrifying and stunning display, capturing the story he sought to recreate in all of natures beauty and humanities fright.

It is bound within a lavish habitat of burnt umber, hazy pale blues and yellows that mingle amongst the fierce oranges and violent cadmium reds. On the horizon, the bright whites of the sun disarray vertically, as if to expose the murky atmosphere as the sole witness of this event. Off to the left is a ship amidst the choppy seas, mist strewn all around its aura and a dark red storm raging beyond. In the foreground, one sees the gestures of fastened shackles around the ankles and wrists of the prisoners in the water, as they struggle with the inevitable.


At the time, artists attending the Royal Academy traditionally painted using precision, staying bound by the realistic representations of the landscapes that surround them. But the body of work by Turner captured a much broader scope of themes and subjects, painting with loose brushstrokes and emotion.


The painting by Cropsey also utilizes the vividness of color and energizing brush strokes to create an emotional atmosphere of nature. Here you have a landscape that was painted by many of the students at the Hudson River School. It was one of the nearby locations that gave rise to the foundations of landscape painting.


This scene is a portrayal of the American landscape. In the foreground is a river falling between rocks, harnessed by brilliant whites and slight hints of blue and aqua, contrasted against the dark browns and reds. To the left, a broken tree lay splintered across a gorge in the cliff, taking a branch from its neighboring tree that otherwise would have erected into the center of the composition. The setting beyond is composed of jagged rocks and other broken trees in dark hues that bring about a dreadful sense of recent violence.


Far in the distance, the sky is captured by expressive brushstrokes of violet, reds, blues and yellows that all fade behind the spells of streaking wind and rain. A rising mountain to the left meets the furious clouds and blocks the sunlight from going further, highlighting against the dark sky, the still standing branches of the broken trees in the foreground, with their lush greens.



Both of these paintings highlight the emotional persona that nature can envelop. On their canvas surfaces, vast landscapes open using vivid colors mixed with furious, dramatic brushstrokes to render the impression of the place and its vibrations. Neither uses in absolution, the traditional realism or precision that was keen to artists at the time. On the contrary, they both used their mediums to harness the passion that nature displayed and taught their eyes and hands to emulate it.


These paintings both fall into what is referred to as the Sublime. This category, or style of painting, elevated the grander of nature, the phenomena of the environmental world, into awe-inspiring scenes that emulate the beautiful violence and majestic tempers found therein. The brush strokes in each of these paintings are applied in the same manner, by harnessing the emotional state of the artist and utilizing the energy found there. I can almost visualize them each, with haste, freeing their entire arm and plunging their body forward to apply a mark. Mixing their colors carefully to achieve the most vivid and contrasted pallet.

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