J. M. W. Turner - Oberwesel 1840

Oberwesel 1840
1840 35x53cm watercolor and gouache
National Gallery of Art Washington

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From National Gallery of Art Washington:
This transcendent view down the Rhine River from the hillside vineyards near Oberwesel, Germany, is a masterpiece by one of the great icons of British art, J. M.W. Turner. Executed in Turner's signature medium of watercolor, it encapsulates all the most admired qualities of the artist's works in that demanding technique. With its dazzling combination of light, color, and atmosphere, this piece not only marks the pinnacle of Turner's career as an artist but also bears eloquent witness to his stature as a supremely gifted and innovative watercolorist.
Turner traveled widely over the course of his career, both in England and abroad, filling sketchbooks with rapid pencil studies that later served as the inspiration for his watercolors. This view of Oberwesel, for example, was the direct result of a trip he made along the Rhine in 1839. Topographical accuracy was not his first concern here, for he repositioned such significant local monuments as the white Ochsturm (Ox Tower) at left and the Schönburg Castle in the middle distance at right to improve the composition, framing the sun-glazed view down the river in a manner intended to evoke the grand classical landscapes of Claude Lorrain (1604/1605–1682). Turner's transcription of nature is firmly rooted in reality, but his inimitable combination of radiant light and vaporous color imbues his vision of the river and the surrounding hills with an extraordinary sense of spirituality and cosmic grandeur. Enhancing that quality is the contrastingly more detailed and down-to-earth handling of the foreground, which is animated with figures and objects that could hardly be more ordinary. Even in those more mundane passages, however, Turner's handling is very fine; particularly beautiful is his deft use of scratching out to indicate the grapevines trailing down the hill at right.
From his many journeys and his extensive reading, Turner was steeped in historical and literary knowledge about the places he visited and drew. He must have been well aware, for example, that in 1813 field marshal Blücher led his Prussian troops across the Rhine below Oberwesel—at the distant spot that lies exactly in the center of Turner's composition—to drive Napoleon's army out of the Rhineland. That is one reason the artist may have chosen to populate the foreground of his composition with laborers and their families resting in the midday sun, thus contrasting their present tranquil existence with the ravages of war in the past. Turner also undoubtedly knew Lord Byron's many verses in praise of the Rhine in Canto III of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, and it has been suggested that he was specifically inspired by verse 46 to include nursing mothers and babes-in-arms among the foreground figures: "Maternal Nature! For who teems like thee, / Thus on the banks of thy majestic Rhine?