Review of J.M.W. Turner's Mount Vesuvius in Eruption
By: Michael A. Arnold

It must have been horrible. No event in history could have been so emblematic of the random fury of those gods than the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. The eruption covered the two Roman settlements of Pompeii and Herculaneum, completely erasing them from the map. Modern estimates say the two settlements combined had a population of around 20,000 people, The remains of only 1,500 have been found so far, we simply do not know what happened to everyone else.

In 1817 the British Romantic artist J.M. Turner painted an image of the Vesuvius eruption, and it is quite a terrifying image. To describe it: the centerpiece of the painting is the volcano with lava is funneling out of the mountain, creating a sky of fire that is like an image of Hell. The huge yellow inferno is also starting to fall down to earth, creating the black dust cloud that coated Pompeii and destroyed it. This dust cloud is so thick it is already blocking out the sky, and on the left hand side it is reaching down and covering a crescent moon. There is no hint the eruption will ever stop. On the bank, just before the viewer, we can see people watching the explosion, and they are in awe of what they are seeing, seemingly wanting to get as close as possible to the eruption (to see it better) but also it is clear from their postures that they are terrified. Many of them are also leaning forward with their legs but backwards with their upper bodies, almost as if they are still feeling the explosion's shockwaves. In the sea to the right of them, a few boats are being pushed to the shore — apparently also affected by the shockwave of the eruption, and it almost looks like they are trying to get away from it in terror too. The whole image of a cataclysm — and it looks and feels like the end of the world.

It would be wrong to say this would have been an unusual choice for Turner to paint exactly, but it is a notably rare example of violence of any kind in his work. Turner is perhaps most famous today for landscapes, or the sea (especially with a huge and luminous sunset over it) are much more typical of his work — with a smudged, watercolor yellow being so prominent in his work that he was actually mocked for overusing it by the London artistic community when he became famous in the 1820s. 'Mount Vesuvius in Eruption' would hardly have been something to show those critics and change their minds, but it is also hard to deny just how well colour is used here. The use of stark colours, the bright and radiant yellow of the explosion against the dark night really makes us pay attention to the fountain–like magma being thrown into the air. We cannot turn our eyes from it, and there is a beauty in it despite it being an image of horror.

Volcanoes and Eruptions must have been on his mind as he painted it, because in 1816, Mt. Tombora in Indonesia erupted, leading to a 'year with no summer' in England as dust and ash blotted out a lot of the sky — but with the added effect that the sunsets over England during that year were apparently notably spectacular. This event almost certainly influenced his taste for using such vibrant, luminous colours, as noted by Olivier Meslay in his book J. M. W. Turner: The Man Who Set Painting on Fire.

Also interesting is that this is a combination of a landscape painting with a classical subject. Turner had painted such images before, but in all the others — such as 'Aeneas and the Cumbrian Sibyl' painted some time between 1815 and 1816:

Or 'Cicero at his Villa in Tusulum' painted 1819:

The subject is always on the landscape itself. The 'characters' are always small, and feel almost incidental to the grandeur of nature. Both of these paintings also have an air of calm and pleasure about them, they are very civilized images and, while we might admire the skill in their composition, they do not hit us with an immense, emotional response. This is very unlike 'Mount Vesuvius in Eruption' – not to suggest those other paintings are not brilliant works, but this is violent, immediate, and forceful — and it would be very difficult to not sympathize with the onlookers who stand in awe and terror on the banks before the viewer, watching the eruption. This painting is trying to strike us emotionally, through the subject, to try to show us something on a deeper level.

This is something very emblematic of Turner's best work, such as 1844's 'Rain, Steam and Speed', which shows a train (then something still new, and very much a symbol of modernity) coming quickly toward the viewer from out of a pastoral, traditional landscape.

A possible interpretation of that painting is very much that modernization can only come from a stable background and past. Or perhaps that modernization is coming fast, and changing the landscape. Either way, it is a painting that is obviously trying to make us engage with it, just like 'Mount Vesuvius in Eruption'. Just like how the eruption of Mt. Tombora may have created beauty in England, for the people living near Mt. Tombora it was something deeply horrifying, and the modern day viewer's distance in time from the Romans at Pompeii means the distance between the viewer and the subject means we might not see it for what it really means.

As mentioned before, the use of yellow (so typical of Turner's work that it became a cliche) is also worth talking about a little. His style was to use watercolors, and smearing them to capture the effects of light and movement on objects in various relations to the viewer, and in this painting it almost looks like the lava we see spewing out of Mt. Vesuvius is almost moving. This is done through a smudging of watercolor around the canvas in a way that makes it look like there is a background image that the smudged paint is obscuring, making the image mimic the effect of the eye blurring, or not quite developing everything exactly, as we see something moving – or when we see something from a great distance, like in the other paintings talked about here. Turner is, and was recognized by critics in his day, as a master of light and perspective, and the 'camera' of the painting is placed both above the people on the beach before us and also quite low to the ground, and it is as if we are a part of the scene – like we standing on a nearby hill. This use of watercolor and the perspective in this painting is so well done, you can almost hear the yells and shouts of the people on the beach before us. It makes them, and the image, more real, and so makes it more emotionally resonant because we relate to it and to them.

Today Pompeii is a major tourism site, and we can walk its streets, getting some sense of what ordinary life was like during the classical world. We can even see the people who once lived in the city — many of them have been preserved in volcanic casts, but we can also see something of who they once were. As we walk around, we can see them laughing at each other, and talking to each other through inscriptions and graffiti that are still legible all this time later. 'Dixi, scripsi. Amas Hiredem … quae te non curat' is one, which says 'You have said, you have written. You love Hiredem … why do you not take care of yourself?' The context is obviously long lost, but this can still be good advice. It is important to remember that the people who died were ordinary human beings, not very different from us. And that should not be forgotten, because it is sadly all too easily forgotten.