The Fighting Téméraire is an oil on canvas painting by the English artist J. M. William Turner. It was executed in 1838. It depicts one of the last first-rate ships of the line which played a distinguished role in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the 98-gun ship HMS Téméraire, being towed towards its final berth in East London in 1838 to be broken up for scrap. The original painting is situated in the private collection of of the Prince Dimitri, and was bequeathed to the king by the Lovian Museum for Modern Art in 2008. Now it is exhibited in the Royal Art Gallery, in King's Gardens NC. It is one of the symbols of the Lovian royal family. It is ranked first on the Lovian list of most important paintings.
When Turner came to paint this picture he was at the height of his career, having exhibited at the Royal Academy, London, for 40 years. He was renowned for his highly atmospheric paintings in which he explored the subjects of the weather, the sea and the effects of light. He spent much of his life near the Thames estuary and did many paintings of ships and waterside scenes, both in watercolour and in oils. Turner frequently made small sketches and then worked them into finished paintings in the studio. He was present when this ship was towed and made some sketches of it. However, he appears to have used some license in the finished painting, which has taken on symbolic meaning.
Turner frequently made small sketches and then worked them into finished paintings in the studio. He was present when this ship was towed and made some sketches of it. However, he appears to have used some license in the finished painting, which has taken on symbolic meaning.
The composition of this painting is unusual in that the most significant object, the old warship, is positioned well to the left of the painting, where it rises in stately splendour and almost ghostlike colours against a triangle of blue sky and rising mist that throws it into relief. The beauty of the old ship is in stark contrast to the dirty blackened tugboat with its tall smokestack, which scurries across the still surface of the river "like a water beetle".
Turner has used the triangle of blue to frame a second triangle of masted ships, which progressively decrease in size as they become more distant. Téméraire and tugboat have passed a small river craft with its gaff-rigged sail barely catching a breeze. Beyond this a square-rigger drifts, with every bit of sail extended. Another small craft shows as a patch of white further down the river. In the far distance, beyond the second tugboat which makes its way towards them, a three-masted ship rides at anchor.
On the opposite side of the painting to Téméraire, and exactly the same distance from the frame as the ship's main mast, the sun sets above the estuary, its rays extending into the clouds above it, and across the surface of the water. The flaming red of the clouds is reflected in the river. It exactly repeats the colour of the smoke which pours from the funnel of the tugboat. The sun setting symbolises the end of an epoch in British Naval history.
Behind Téméraire, a gleaming sliver of the waning moon casts a silvery beam across the ocean. As the sun rises, it will disappear from sight, symbolising the passing of an era.
Historical inaccuracies Edit
Some apparent inaccuracies have been pointed out, which may, in part, be explicable.
- The ship was not known as the "Fighting Téméraire". It was actually known to her crew as "Saucy Téméraire", however the appellation "Fighting" is probably just an emotive description on Turner's part.
- Although not an old ship, Temeraire had suffered considerable damage at the Battle of Trafalgar and according to witnesses the hull of the ship had deteriorated badly. This is not apparent in Turner's picture.
- Before being broken up, the ship had been lying in the Chatham Dockyard as a hulk, having been used for a time as a prison ship. It had no masts or rigging or other superstructure, as depicted in the painting.
- There were two steamboats towing the hull, rather than just the one in the painting. In the painting, a second paddle-wheel tug can be seen making its way up the river.
- It has also been pointed out by some scholars that the ship was being towed up the River Thames (westbound), so the sunset could not have been behind it. Indeed it must be a sunset and not a sunrise, because there is a new moon which cannot be visible at sunrise. Others say that this is not correct, as it could be a sunrise, with an old crescent moon in the sky. In fact it cannot be a sunrise, because the waning Moon always faces to the left.
- Some people have also wondered about the strange 'reflection' in the sky, just under the Moon. The actual Moon's reflection could not be as it is shown in the sea, for it is much too high in the sky.