Rain, Steam and Speed - the Great Western Railway (Rain Steam and Speed The Great Western Railway)
Artist: Joseph Mallord William Turner
Oil painting on canvas; Size: 91x122cm; National Gallery, London.
Watching trains go by was a common pastime for grownups in the early Victorian age. The year in which the painting was executed and shown at the Royal Academy, 1844, the Great Western Railway was extending the line from Bristol to Exeter and this may have stimulated Turner's imagination. The railroad was transforming the landscape and its perception: glorified as an inevitable mark of progress, it was also fiercely opposed by those who feared the effects of industrialization and the speed of trains on the rhythms of life. Ruskin, for once in disagreement with Turner, argued that beauty required peace and quiet. A train is steaming over the bridge at Maidenhead, the only point at which the London-Bristol line crossed the Thames. The bridge was an act of technological daring on the part of I.K. Brunel, with flat brick spans that it was feared would not withstand the weight of the first train. The directors of the Great Western Railway ordered Brunel not to remove the timbering used during its construction. The engineer agreed, but then secretly reduced the supporting structure slightly: the arches looked as if they were underpinned, but in reality were suspended in the void. On the left a small boat with fishermen, on the right cultivated fields and a man plowing, perhaps in reference to the play on words provided by the name of a traditional folkdance, Speed the Plow.Rain, the steam of the locomotive and speed, three elements that render the vision indistinct and blurred. The Impressionists could not fail to be struck by the painter's interest in natural phenomena and the representation of light: Pissarro wrote to his son in London suggesting he go to see the picture, while Monet recognized that Turner had known how to paint "with his eyes open."
The train is coming toward the observer and, as in the first experiments with cinematography, seems about to burst out of the canvas and into the room. But it is not the speed of the train that we notice. In front of Turner's locomotive streaks a tiny hare: we do not know whether it is driven by fear or by a sense of mockery.
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