2 Ships, 1 Sun: A Look at a Romantic Landscape

In this post, I want to take a look at The Fighting Temeraire, tugged to her last Berth to be broken up, 1838. Wow, that’s certainly a long title for a painting. This work of art was painted during a stylistic period called Romanticism by the English landscape artist, Joseph Mallord William Turner in 1838, and exhibited at the Royal Academy just one year later (so you can see that Turner was an artist who achieved critical acclaim during his lifetime).

A brief low-down on Romanticism: Poets, painters, and musicians of this era celebrated nature over the man-made, turning to landscapes for inspiration. Works of art emphasized an emotional approach to the world, in reaction against the cold and calculated intellectualism that was the hallmark of the Enlightenment, Scientific Revolution, and the violently failed French Revolution.

Artists celebrated that moment when a person gets in touch with something beyond themselves — The Sublime — such as an inspiring view. 

Artists from this time period include the composer Beethoven, writer Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) and the poet John Keats. Then there were painters, one of which was Turner, our artist under discussion today.

So let’s take a look at his painting of these two ships — and one sun.

There are 8 different things you can think about and discuss when looking at a painting, and many of them are really just based on what you see. They are:

  • Composition
  • Movement
  • Unity and Balance
  • Color and Lighting
  • Mood
  • History
  • Biography
  • Symbolism

Let’s take a look right now at each one…and yes, I’ll be re-posting the same painting below each heading so you can have a visual in front of you to explore the points we discuss.


This canvas is an assortment of contrasts. A setting sun occupies the right side of the canvas, and we see a small rising moon above the ships on the left. The whitish, tall, sailing vessel contrasts with the dark and squat paddle-wheeler that tows it. The warm tones around the setting sun contrast with the cool tones on the remainder of the canvas, but the colors are blended so expertly that the contrasts do not overpower the viewer. Of course, in terms of contrasts, there is also the clear reference to steam power versus sail power, which we will discuss more below.


Immediately we see that there are two ships on the left side of the canvas, one behind the other, which implies that the larger ship — a sailing vessel — is being towed somewhere. In the lower right corner there appears to a dark object in the water, which is probably a buoy. The buoy makes a set of diagonal lines, one stretching out to the tips of the masts on the white sailing ship, and the other stretching out toward the equally dark steamboat. These diagonal lines, coupled with the obvious cloud of smoke coming from the smokestack, implies that the ships are moving toward that bottom right corner. Incidentally, Turner took some poetic license with the smokestack and moved it further toward the front of the boat, so the cloud would be elongated and more noticeable.

Unity and Balance:

The diagonal lines stretching from the buoy to the tips of the masts bisect the canvas, creating a dividing line between the warm colors of the setting sun and the cooler tones of the water and clouds. The ships are off to one side, the imbalance of which only heightens the sense that we are witnessing the scene in action — a point of style that was particularly popular in Romantic paintings and latter with the work of the Impressionists, who sought to capture the fleeting moments of life in one-sitting works of strong brushstrokes. There is also an interesting contrast between the stillness of the water, and vigorous strokes around the sun and clouds, which breaks up the uniformity of the texture. A sense of balance is achieved by positioning the horizon line approximately one third up from the bottom of the canvas.

Color and Lighting:

The lighting of this scene is very much driven by the setting sun. In actuality, the Temaire was not towed in the direction we see it traveling to; Turner took poetic license to position the sunset in the background (why that is, we will see later). Turner was particularly fascinated with the effects of color, and many of his canvases are strongly driven by one hue. In this case, he has given careful attention to the yellow and shades of yellow around the sun; capturing yellow light was one of his special preoccupations. The yellow is dotted with a variety of red shades to give it some extra complexity. The ships are also an interesting study in colors. The white sailing vessel is ghostly in its appearance. Though it would have been black and gold in reality, Turner depicts the Temaire in grays, browns, and ivories to give it an insubstantial appearance, along with giving it skeleton-like look with the visible timbers of the hull . This is all in contrast to the black steamboat that pulls it, which is fairly solid, especially its smokestack, which even has a white line along the front to indicate the reflection of light (which further implies its very solid state).


As mentioned, this painting is driven by contrasts, and preeminent among them thematically is the contrast between steam power and sail power. To understand the mood of this painting, it’s important to take that historical detail into account. Sail power was associated with a certain sense of glory, adventure, excitement, and romance. The setting sun, combined with the shell of a boat being towed to shore to be taken apart and sold as scrap, might invoke a certain sense of sadness, loss, or wistfulness. To viewers unaware of that fact, and even for those who are, the sun-washed sky and calm waters appear peaceful — but our curiosity cannot help but be evoked by the two ships on the right side of the canvas. As it turns out, the Temaire’s masts would have been removed before it was towed to its final berth, but Turner left them in the painting, perhaps to further evoke a sense of melancholy about its demise — a feeling that is only heightened by the vessel under full sail we see moving in the opposite direction, just to the right of the black tugboat; it might allude to the glory days of the Temaire.


This Painting (NOT by Turner) shows the Temaire in its glory days.

The Temaire was a British warship that played an important role in the Battle of Trafalagar, which was fought off the coast of Spain between Napoleon’s navy and the British Fleet. It was at this battle that Admiral Horatio Nelson defeated the French Navy and effectively made the British Empire the preeminent naval power for the next century. As such, the Temaire was a symbol for the glory days of sail, adventure, and the romantic notions that went with it…such as seen in the likes of C.F. Stanfield’s The Battle of Trafalgar (pictured above, painted 1836). What loomed ahead on the horizon was a new era of a steam-powered world, inhabited by new machines like this steamboat, and trains (which also fascinated Turner, and appear in another famous painting of his, Rain, Steam, and Speed — The Great Western Railway). 


This later painting of Turner’s illustrates the abstract direction he took.

Turner was one of the two greatest landscape painters in his day; the other was John Constable. While Constable’s work was very much driven by the actual appearance of the English countryside, Turner’s work increasingly became more and more abstract as his career went on. He started out painting classically inspired landscapes and watercolors, and then turned toward a focus on capturing the power of nature, especially the sea, storms, and in particular, storms at sea. From there, his paintings became a more free-form style of swirling light and color (such as the above-pictured Snow Storm: Steam Boat Off a Harbor’s Mouth) and this painting seems to fall into the beginning of that more abstract leg of his life’s journey. 


As mentioned, the preeminent contrast of this painting is that of sail power versus steam power. The setting sun, which Turner took some poetic license to include in the painting, and the ghostly appearance of the Temaire, are like a mournful song to the end of an era. In its place is something far less endearing — the dark, squat, and purely functional tugboat that represents the new and predominant force of steam. High above the tugboat, a white flag flies, the symbol of surrender. The Temaire would not go down at Trafalgar, which became symbolic of British resolve and the Empire. But here the white flag flies, as if to imply that the glorious era of sail has given up, and willingly goes to its death. In this way, Turner’s canvas — though painted in a very expressive and emotive Romantic style — alludes to the passing of Romanticism and the entry of the world into something yet unseen and unknown.

A final word…

As you can see, many of the points we raised were just based on looking at the painting. As we moved into the later points, we did need a little deeper understanding of the artist, the time period, and possible symbolic meanings. But for the most part, discussing a painting does not have to be so difficult. You can just point out the things you see and start talking about them.

You could also add to these eight points its personal meaning and/or appeal to you. Do you like the painting? Does it evoke a specific mood in you? Does it remind you of anything? Considerations like this take art out of the realm of intellectual topic matter and make it personal.As you can see, there is so much to learn about art and art history. For a stunning compilation of retouched visuals spanning every period in art history, along with excellent commentary of the imagery, I recommend Art: The Definitive Visual Guide by DK Publishers. For an excellent narrative treatment of the story of art as it’s unfolded over the centuries, I recommend The Annotated Mona Lisa.