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THERE’S A CONFLUENCE of art and science in the works of 19th-century English painter J.M.W. Turner. London Review of Books, October 20, 2016, contained an article titled “The Chase: Inigo Thomas Looks Again at Turner’s ‘Rain, Steam and Speed.’ ” On January 9, 2017, Science Online posted “How a 19th Century Concoction Transformed Oil Painting,” by Robert F. Service. And, on January 15, 2017, “Painting with Gumtion: Accelerating Art,” by David Bradley, described the use of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy in analyzing just how Turner achieved his artistry.
Turner’s preference for painting landscapes, as opposed to historical themes, placed him at odds with his contemporaries in the early 19th-century art scene. In fact, though, his rendering of light through layers of oil on canvas was a precursor of French Impressionism.
In analyzing Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway, Inigo Thomas cites William Makepeace Thackeray, English novelist and a contemporary of Turner, remarking “There comes a train down upon you. The viewer had best make haste… lest it dash out of the picture and be away to Charing Cross through the wall opposite.”
Like others of Turner’s mature works, this one renders light and darkness in a layered way, with few sharp edges. Thomas quotes Thackeray again: “ ‘The world has never seen anything like this picture,’ Thackeray said…. The title of modern art wasn’t long in coming: In the first Impressionist salon in 1874, George Braquemond showed an etching of Manet’s Olympia alongside an intriguing version of Rain, Steam and Speed.”
Turner’s reputation as “the painter of light” is confirmed in The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838. Noteworthy are the scene’s evocation of a setting sun, a waxing moon and their reflections on the estuary. In a 2005 poll organized by BBC Radio 4’s Today program, listeners voted this to be Britain’s favorite painting.
How did Turner do it?
Here, I shift gears from art to Science author Robert Service. He notes “Early oil painters had a difficult time layering colors, because the paints—a mixture of oils, pigments and resins—took weeks, if not years, to fully dry.” This was until the discovery of “gumtion” or “meglip,” a concoction of lead acetate, linseed oil and turpentine combined with dried resin from mastic trees.
David Bradley’s “Painting with Gumtion: Accelerating Art” describes how this material “endowed the viscous oil paints with a more jelly-like consistency that could be exploited in the impasto-rich paintwork of Turner and his contemporaries. Experiments detailed in the journal Angewandte Chemie reveal the crucial role lead acetate played in the gelation process.” In this German journal, researcher Laurence de Viguere of Université Pierre et Marie Curie and her colleagues give details.
Bradley says, “Indeed, this mechanism is rather similar to the one responsible for the drying and ageing processes in resins and oils, but the presence of a transition metal, or lead in this instance, accelerates the network-forming process.”
“ ‘There is a PhD on this topic starting now,” de Viguere told SpectroscopyNOW…. ‘Further, we want to study the gel-paint system, understand the chemistry to get a better view of conservation conditions of such mixtures.’ She points out that some 19th century paintings are suffering dramatic conservation issues such as “alligatoring” defects, drying cracks and other problems.”
Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire is considered to be in exceptionally fine condition. Though its colors are a bit dull with age, Rain, Steam and Speed is said to be in good condition. And both works of art profited from relative speedy completion, thanks to gumtion. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017