“Dieppe” and “Cologne” on loan from the Frick, NY
Two magnificent pictures by Joseph Mallord William Turner (British, 1775 – 1851) returned to the UK for the first time in over 100 years. Harbour of Dieppe: Changement de Domicile and Cologne, the Arrival of a Packet-Boat: Evening are on display at the National Gallery, London, until 19 February 2023. Lent by The Frick Collection, New York.
Exhibited at the Royal Academy London in 1825 and 1826 respectively, the paintings reflect Turner’s lifelong fascination with ports and harbours. Turner’s sketching tours within Europe were central to his fame as an artist-traveller, drawing in sketchbooks and producing paintings from them back in his studio in England. These monumental paintings have always belonged together. “Dieppe” in brilliant afternoon sun, pulls you into the hustle and bustle of a fishing harbour; “Cologne” at dusk, is set at the shore of the river Rhine in the centre of the German city. In 1911 the two paintings were acquired by the American industrialist and art patron Henry Clay Frick.
Turner visited the French fishing port of Dieppe, in Normandy, twice in the early 1820s before painting Harbour of Dieppe: Changement de Domicile in his London studio. Set in the afternoon, the work draws from sketches made on site, as well as from memory and imagination. In this Romantic view, signs of modernisation, such as the steamboats then in use, are excluded. Turner focuses on the vibrant energy of the town filled with glowing sunlight and hundreds of figures engaged in lively activities. He captured the details of local dress, studied the ships and their rigging up close and made detailed renderings of the town’s architecture. The French subtitles Turner assigned the painting – “Changement de Domicile” (change of home address) – may refer to the couple to the right, who appear to be loading or unloading objects from boats.
Cologne, Germany, had long been a major commercial, educational, and religious centre. Situated on the banks of the Rhine, Cologne was still largely medieval in appearance when Turner visited. Only a small section of the city is visible in his painting: the tower and spire of the church of Groß St. Martin piercing the evening sky, with defensive towers, walls, and the customs house leading up to it. There is a sense of time standing still. The ferry boat carrying tourists to shore is about to disturb the peace of the scene.
Turner visited Italy in 1819 and was highly inspired by the Mediterranean sun. Light became an increasingly important motif in Turner’s later work, and these two paintings certainly are the start of that artistic journey. Turner said: “The sun is God”. These words and the two paintings on view in the National Gallery summarise his belief.
Turner on Tour, National Gallery, London. Until 19 February 2023, Admission free.
Charles Baudelaire (French, 1821 – 1867) wrote a collection of short prose poems “Petits Poèmes en Prose”, published in 1869, one of those is “The Port”. Turner’s use of light in “Dieppe” and “Cologne” is a poem in painting, as Baudelaire’s words are a poem in prose.
A port is a delightful place of rest for a soul weary of life’s battles. The vastness of the sky, the mobile architecture of the clouds, the changing coloration of the sea, the twinkling of the lights, are a prism marvelously fit to amuse the eyes without ever tiring them. The slender shapes of the ships with their complicated rigging, to which the surge lends harmonious oscillations, serve to sustain within the soul the taste for rhythm and beauty. Also, and above all, for the man who no longer possesses either curiosity or ambition, there is a kind of mysterious and aristocratic pleasure in contemplating, while lying on the belvedere or resting his elbows on the jetty-head, all these movements of men who are leaving and men who are returning, of those who still have the strength to will, the desire to travel or to enrich themselves.
Un port est un séjour charmant pour une âme fatiguée des luttes de la vie. L’ampleur du ciel, l’architecture mobile des nuages, les colorations changeantes de la mer, le scintillement des phares, sont un prisme merveilleusement propre à amuser les yeux sans jamais les lasser. Les formes élancées des navires, au gréement compliqué, auxquels la houle imprime des oscillations harmonieuses, servent à entretenir dans l’âme le goût du rythme et de la beauté. Et puis, surtout, il y a une sorte de plaisir mystérieux et aristocratique pour celui qui n’a plus ni curiosité ni ambition, à contempler, couché dans le belvédère ou accoudé sur le môle, tous ces mouvements de ceux qui partent et de ceux qui reviennent, de ceux qui ont encore la force de vouloir, le désir de voyager ou de s’enrichir.