Colour can speak volumes - and one artist who knew that to be true was the English painter J.M.W Turner.
Decades after his death, Turner is now held in the highest esteem for his dramatic landscape paintings, but at the time he was considered a controversial figure. He constantly feuded with his contemporaries and ignored the advice of painting experts.
One unforgettable story, in particular, speaks volumes about his radical understanding of colour (and his eccentric, confrontational nature).
Read on for one of the most shocking moments in the history of art (before Duchamp signed his urinal, before Manet painted a nude Olympia, before Marc Quinn cast himself in his own blood.) That’s right; Turner was there before them all. They should name a controversial art prize after him.
So let’s set the scene. Two of England’s greatest painters, Turner and Constable, had never got on. Constable ridiculed Turner’s work as being “just steam and light”, and Turner gave the utmost respect to his predecessors, but none to his contemporaries.
Constable even attempted to have one of Turner’s paintings removed from an exhibition, so that it could be replaced with one of his own.
Things turned uglier still in 1832. John Constable was exhibiting a painting at The Royal Academy – a painting that he had been working on for 15 years.
He added the finishing brushstrokes to The Opening of Waterloo Bridge in the gallery itself, making sure it was perfect.
But Turner wasn’t one to be upstaged. He too was showing a painting in the same gallery. Entering the room full with many onlookers, he approached his own painting – a seascape titled Helvoetsluys. By comparison, it had only taken him a few months to complete, but he felt it was lacking in colour.
In front of everyone, he added a small red buoy into the centre of the canvas – and left the scene without comment.
Constable was outraged, claiming that Turner “has been here and fired a gun.”
You could say that he was seeing red. (You saw that one coming, didn’t you?)
That little red buoy, Turner’s last minute addition, proved that true artistry is found “in restraint and understanding, not excessive effort”, as observed by Professor David Solkin from the Courtauld Institute.
So there you have it. A small application of red paint can change not only a single painting, but an artist’s entire vision of what colour represents.
It also proves that Turner was a bit of a show-off. And sometimes that’s OK.
Watch the trailer for the upcoming film Mr. Turner here, as part of our Paint Light Colour campaign.
J.M.W. Turner. Helvoetsluys, Ships Going Out to Sea, 1832. Oil on Canvas. 48 x 36. as reproduced in JMW Turner: The Complete Works. 9th March, 2010.