In the mid-eighteenth century, artists became interested in the sublime. The English philosopher Edmund Burke (1729–97) defined the source of the sublime as anything that excites ideas of terror, pain or peril in the mind of a person who is safe in the knowledge that they are not in fact subjected to danger. Turner’s supporter, John Ruskin (1819–1900), later declared the sublime ‘the effect of greatness upon feelings… whether of matter, space, power, virtue or beauty’.
Turner’s stormy seascapes highlight the overwhelming force of the sea. Shipwrecks, catastrophic deluges and rough seas were some of his principal subjects in the last twenty years of his life. At times he employed a vortex as a compositional device, destabilising vision and creating a sense in the viewer of being overwhelmed – as can be seen in Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis exhibited 1843.
In the 1880s, Monet explored the immensity and harshness of nature on the Normandy and Brittany coast. He chose increasingly isolated and perilous places in which to paint, and was even knocked down by a particularly powerful wave during one painting session. Eschewing figures, Monet encourages the viewer to replace him as the perceiving body, standing before the ocean he described as a ‘gouffre’, a fearful abyss.
In Twombly’s four mythological panels Hero and Leandro 1981–4, a story Turner also addressed, Leandro is engulfed by the sea as he swims across the Hellespont to visit his lover, the beautiful Hero. Tossed around by the waves in the first panel, he is eventually submerged beneath the spume. In the fourth frame, Twombly inscribes the closing line from a sonnet by John Keats inspired by the same story. In addition to human tragedy, Twombly’s theme, like Turner’s and Monet’s, is the fury and force of nature; his series Untitled (Porto Ercole) 1987 evokes the four elements – earth, fire, wind and water.