Turner's Yellow Fever

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Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Harbor of Dieppe, 1820s

Turner traveled to Italy for the first time in 1819 and returned in 1820. What began as a trip to collect inspiration in sketchbooks and watercolors for later commissions, turned into something quite unexpected. Turner contracted Yellow Fever, or rather, an obsession with the color yellow, as deemed by the English art viewers (a bit harsh, but it proved a point). Turner’s The Harbor of Dieppe had potential; it has his signature sky, beautiful boats and mirror like water, but it was yellow. Not the yellow that graces the sky during a sunrise or sunset, but a pure yellow tint across the canvas. Yellow seems to emanate from the center of the painting, dispersing its hue across the canvas, and critics did not like it. They had found the symptom of Turner’s artistic Yellow Fever, but now they had to derive its cause and suggest a treatment. Author Barry Venning explains that the critics claimed this “intensification of… colour… as a response to [Turner's] experience of Italy and its light.”  Critics were a bit more accepting of Turner’s color palate when he painted Italy, but he had transferred the palate to scenes of northern Europe, and “contemporaries were taken aback.”

The critics prescribed the treatment: no more yellow. And did Turner go to the pharmacy and pick up
Turner, Angel Standing in the Sun, 1846
his prescription? Quite the opposite, actually. Turner added more yellow, increasingly becoming more dependent on the hue. He didn’t immediately begin painting with exorbitant amounts of yellow, but r
ather gradually added more. Maybe this was an attempt to adjust the viewers to the specific color, or maybe Turner was experimenting with the color himself, not yet sure how it affected him, but nevertheless, yellow pursued. In paintings such as Angel Standing in the Sun and Light & Color (Goethe’s Theory): Morning after the Deluge, Moses Writing the Book of Genesis Exhib. at Royal Acad., both painted after The Harbor of Dieppe, the presence of yellow is striking. Turner blends the yellow with the darker palate in some areas, but then leaves spots of yellow that immediately catch your eye. In Chichester Canal, also painted after The Harbor of Dieppe, Turner tints the entire canvas an eerie yellow, resembling his style in The Harbor of Dieppe. Both paintings appear to have a central source of yellow light, a spot that shines brighter than the others, but the entire painting emanates a yellow hue as well.  

Turner, Chichester Canal, 1830-1
The yellow in his paintings varied in darkness, shading and concentration, some only having specks of yellow while others practically consisted of a solely yellow canvas. Turner’s works such as Wreckers – Coast of Northumberland, with a Steam-Boat Assisting a Ship off Shore, and Landscape with river and a bay in the far background contain large portions of yellow with slight accents of other colors, as Turner slowly developed more confidence with the color that was beginning to be coined to his name. Sunrise with a Sea Monster depicts Turner’s culmination of the yellow canvas. From a distance, the piece appears to be practically blank, just strangely tinted a faint yellow, but the closer one gets, the clearer the painting becomes.What at first seems to be two, maybe three shades of yellow mixed
Turner, Sunrise with a Sea Monster, 1840-5
with tan turns into many more strokes of different shades, all melding into one to create a bleak, slightly distressing artwork, complete with the remnants of a nightmarish sea monster lurking in the canvas. The viewer's eyes trace the shades of yellow, attempting to put together some kind of scenery around the monster, but to no avail. This painting’s only link to
The Harbor of Dieppe is the color; nothing else is similar. No Turneresque sky, no mirror like water...just yellow

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