From Pride & Prejudice to Vanity Fair:
Turner’s Attitudes Toward Women Over Time
Turner’s take on the feminine is by no means obvious. However, as a long-standing believer in equality of opportunity and regard—yes, I’m that scary bugaboo to defenders of machismo, a Chilean feminist—I can’t help but wonder.
While only a few of Turner’s ninety-two depictions in the Turner-at-the-Tate program center on women or the female form, these few are fairly striking: the reclining nude in “” is particularly telling. Moreover, many of the landscapes include women and men, often in juxtapositions that are suggestive about the artist’s sensibilities concerning women.
I can’t help but see a strong split in Turner’s life. On the one hand, he seems to celebrate the nymph. On the other hand, his women appear less than real, if not often surreal, all necks and ruffles, or all rounded shoulders and casually bared breasts.
My questions about how Turner considered women have also intensified as I’ve learned more about him. His never having married; his waffling in relation to children who were likely the fruit of his loins/his own issue/his kids; his frolicking with freethinkers, libertines, and assorted mistresses; all have made me ‘curiouser and curiouser.’
This relevance, a piqued attention on my part if nothing else, also applies to the times in which he lived, when so much of the present was ‘coming to term,’ so to speak. As another blogger put the case, “In so many ways, (the Romantic period of which Turner formed an important component) was the birth of the modern world, and for me, its challenges, its characters and its conflicts have such relevance to our own times.”
A fair amount of material, on point and more or less provocative, does show up that deals explicitly with Turner’s consciousness concerning women. One psychiatrist with a Freudian bent even wants to make such matters central to the artist’s psyche.
“A final point concerning Turner's mental make-up is that although he is known to have had children he never married but formed a number of impermanent liaisons, all with older women. It is possible that a sense of insecurity in his relationships with the opposite sex and a disinclination to enter into more permanent relationships sprang from his traumatic early home life with his mother and her mental illness. This may well have played a part in the genesis of some of the depression and pessimism which occupied part of his mental life.”
Multiple chroniclers of the life Turnerian make similar points, about how his sister’s death drove his mother berserk, necessitating a boy’s removal to his rural uncle’s radical environs and setting him on a course to draw and ponder and long for idyllic circumstances, a brief Tate life-story makes clear that, like other Brits—and some would argue, especially women—who could not conform, Turner’s mom ended up in Bedlam itself. This was the famous asylum where at one time ‘Spot the Loonie’ was a spectator sport, where she died in 1804, all of which transpired when the artist was becoming a well-established artist in his mid-to-late twenties.
Such dementing of the feminine, in the seemingly weird context of making female ‘normality’ holy and pure, was quite prevalent at the time, and some would argue that not that much has altered in the days of ‘Housewives’ reality television. This all may connect, as well, with what Thackeray describes as a ‘fashion to be discreet,’ covering up the earlier license of Tom Jones with the elliptical hints of Vanity Fair.
No matter what, the ‘Romantic imagination’ and the period of Turner’s life did in some fashion turn on these points of repressing the feminine, glorifying and mystifying the feminine, and otherwise ‘putting women on pedestals’ and then locking them up if they wouldn’t stay there. Countless studies make similar points as these about the proclivities of Victorian England.
Among them, Mary Shelley: Romance & Reality shows the way that exposure to art played a part in ‘liberated women’s’ lives. Nicola Bown’s Fairies in Nineteenth Century Art & Literature, meanwhile, demonstrates how mythic portrayals of feminine deities and other symbols often had social and political importance.
That all of this paradoxical reality actually relates to JMW Turner’s work is more than mere surmise. One need only consider the opening lines of James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.
“WHO does not know Turner’s picture of the Golden Bough? The scene, suffused with the golden glow of imagination in which the divine mind of Turner steeped and transfigured even the fairest natural landscape, is a dream-like vision of the little woodland lake of Nemi— “Diana’s Mirror,” as it was called by the ancients. No one who has seen that calm water, lapped in a green hollow of the Alban hills, can ever forget it. The two characteristic Italian villages which slumber on its banks, and the equally Italian palace whose terraced gardens descend steeply to the lake, hardly break the stillness and even the solitariness of the scene. Diana herself might still linger by this lonely shore, still haunt these woodlands wild.”
Furthermore, Turner’s circle included many radicals with feminist bona fides. Henry Scott, a firebrand early liberal and son of the aristocratic feminist Sarah Trimmer, was one of Turner’s close friends. If for no other reason, Turner’s notoriety as a ‘freethinker’ stands him in good stead as a promoter of Pan and wild women clans.
But as I’ve said, a more complicated and tangled view is also necessary. The artist may have frolicked and thought freely, but the man was at least a little leery. He never delved a matrimonial connection. And, whatever else the case may be, Turner’s “obsessive secrecy” about his relationships with women is an established fact.
As has often been the case when I’ve been wrestling with these kinds of quandaries, something that my husband—whose assistance continues to support me through this maelstrom of activity—focused on has led me to another ‘they-can’t-make-this-sh**-up’ rabbit hole.
My spousal unit kept pointing out, “there’s some kind of aversion to the real, animal female,” he contended. The lack of pubic hair was evidence of this, he contended. I wasn’t convinced, though the possibility seemed reasonable.
Jimbo sent me overall search results that suggested that this is not just his inimitable wild-man ways speaking. The string, "pubic hair" + "classical art" OR "victorian art" OR "romantic art" OR "renaissance art", led to 132,000 citations. Ones such as this were well attended chats on the topic.
Then, just for grins, he searched for links to "pubic hair" + "jmw turner". The 11,200 hits turned out, in hundreds of cases, to concern Turner’s good friend and biographer, John Ruskin, who failed to consummate his marriage because he objected to his wife’s anatomy. A Canadian film “The Passion of John Ruskin,” even develops this idea), including the eventual abandonment of a six-year, celibate marriage by Effie Gray to elope with the artist who was painting John’s portrait. The beautiful Ms.Gray, fuzz and all, went on to have eight children.
While some authorities contend that we may make too much of such matters, the facts, which became a matter of public record as well as private correspondence, make indisputable that Ruskin’s disgust with female fur was, at the very least, a big part of the situation. A recent biography of Gray inclines to the idea that menstruation turned Ruskin off, but the point remains, in all its contradictory flowering of the bizarre: a great ‘social reformer’ and critic of olden ways was at once a towering leader of ‘progressive’ thought and perversely prudish about women.
Bill Bryson has also emphasized this point and adds that Ruskin, years after Turner’s death, discovered a massive cache of erotic drawings among Turner’s works and put most or all of them to the torch. To say that this was ‘news to me’ is an understatement of substantial proportions.
Rather than flesh this point out now, I may do another blog on the subject. But this much is clear. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of sketches and drawings by Turner were what the present British press calls ‘naughty.’ Turner owned a pub, “Turner’s Old Star,” in which he installed his mistress Mrs. Booth—he often referred to himself as “Admiral Booth”—where, Ruskin contends, “Turner would come here to draw ‘sailors' women in every posture of abandonment. ’”
Nevertheless, whatever Ruskin’s horror and attendant pyromaniacal tendencies in regard to the prurient and licentious animality that Turner apparently celebrated, the squeamish philosopher missed a substantial number of the artist’s works. A contemporary cultural luminary on the British scene, Tracey Emin, in fact is planning a largeshow at the Turner Contemporary Museum that showcases her own works, pieces by Rodin, and some of Turner’s most salacious fare. “SheLay Down Deep Beneath the Sea” opens on May 26th, just as my ninetieth painting rolls off the assembly line, and then runs past the end of the Olympics in London.
Who would have thought that an Epic Painting Project could be such fun?