Color Studies: Bridging the Works of J.M.W. Turner and Wallace Stevens
by Amy DeLaBruere
Distant in time and place but connected through the concept of color studies, nineteenth-century British painter J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851) and twentieth-century American poet Wallace Stevens (1879–1955) both placed the application, modification, and interpretation of color at the center of their artistic methodologies. This bridge between Turner’s painting and Stevens’s poetry establishes shared characteristics of ephemerality, turbulence, and immediacy in their works. For both artists, color represents the tool with which they reconcile tensions between the internal and the external—the self and the outside world.
Primacy of color manifests itself throughout Turner’s and Stevens’s oeuvres, but no more impactfully than in Turner’s two Colour Studies sketchbooks (ca. 1834–1836), which contain mainly abstract bedroom scenes with figures—often dismissed as simply “erotic” images.1 This essay offers a case study juxtaposing these sketchbook images with Stevens’s first volume of poems, Harmonium (1923), and argues that both bodies of work specifically engage with the themes of abstraction and obscurity through color.2 Turner’s two sketchbooks document the beginning of the artist’s evolution toward abstraction, which characterized his later work between the late 1830s and his death in 1851.3 Similarly, the poems in Stevens’s Harmonium represent the building blocks of his transition from a more “aesthetic” style based in representation of the world to an increasingly “cerebral” approach to poetry as his career developed.4 Harmonium is essentially Stevens’s equivalent of a sketchbook; the poems act as a site for exploration and experimentation, just as a ‘color study’ constitutes a prolonged physical and mental exploration of color as a material, method, and subject.
Turner’s paintings and Stevens’s poems connote obscurity in several ways. Within the context of this essay, obscurity is interpreted as an extension of abstraction—both a mental and visual uncertainty of subject and form. Stevens’s poem, “Fabliau of Florida” (1919), describes a beach scene where a “Barque of phosphor/ […] Move[s] outward into heaven,/ Into the alabasters/ And night blues.”5 Night assumes various hues throughout the poem, and these opening lines notably present the color words—“alabasters” and “blues”—as the subjects and “night” as a modifier.6 The shift in grammatical format conveys a sense of clarity as well as ambiguity as the audience must reassess the structure of Stevens’s language as well as the scene he constructs to glean meaning.7
In the lines, “Fill your black hull/ With white moonlight,” Stevens returns to a conventional, adjectival application of the color words.8 However, he visually simplifies or abstracts the image from one of form to one primarily of color. He creates juxtapositions between the natural and the manmade, sea and sky, and dark and light, all through the momentary, glowing moonlight on a ship’s hull. Stevens essentially reframes our perception of language and especially words denoting color through a balance of obscuration and illustration. Harold Bloom writes that Stevens “[labors] successfully to make the visible a little harder to see.”9 In abstracting forms and inserting more of the conceptual into his work, Stevens, like Turner, makes the physical forms increasingly obscured or disassociated from their original context, but both artists make readily attainable the emotional, visual, and associative power of their works.
“Fabliau of Florida” depicts a relatively calm landscape, highlighting the natural integration of visual details. For Stevens, both the night and the fusion of elements in nature represent obscurity and are linked with the sublime. By engaging single colors or families of hues—“alabasters,” “night blues,” and “white moonlight”—to represent the entirety of the sea, sky, beach, and light, Stevens abstracts the landscape and simultaneously delineates the horizon for the audience.10 The oversimplification of color is at odds with the sublime nature of the entities the colors depict.
Glen McLeod describes Stevens’s mode of sublimity as “both an abstraction and a feeling.”11 Essentially, the sublime in Stevens’s understanding relies on one’s personal associations of a space and the atmosphere one perceives—an interiority defined by the “movement of the self toward ‘what is real’ beyond words and images.”12 This interiority, particularly in combination with the dynamic landscape, conveys a distinctly Romantic attitude toward representation that permeated art of Turner’s era. Consistently throughout his poetry, Stevens applies a modern attitude and use of symbolism to the traditionally Romantic tension between reality and human imagination, as well as his conceptualization of the landscape and formulation of “a oneness between man and the natural world.”13
Meanwhile, Turner’s oil paintings of vortical seascapes and violent landscapes connect his oeuvre with the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century associations of the sublime with supernatural terror and awe. Turner’s ambiguous interiors in the Colour Studies sketchbooks, however, minimize the more frightful aspects of sweeping wind, light, and color in the scenes. Instead, these watercolors emphasize an all-encompassing, yet harmonious and even reverent depiction of natural elements or sublime entities that aligns with Stevens’s description of his poetic environments. Turner shares Stevens’s interest in the expression of the artist’s lived experience and particularly Stevens’s obsession with exploring human imagination through his art. Turner’s work, like Stevens’s, reexamines this interiority within the more modern framework of abstraction and simplification of form. In combining features of the Romantic and modern, their works bridge the near-century separating their creation.
The turbulence that typifies Turner’s oil paintings enhances their visual tumult, but also incorporates the personal that defines his own brand of sublimity by concealing and reimagining the realism of place and time. This duality of human imagination asserted within the ostensibly concrete, realistic framework of the landscape manifests in Turner’s Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (Tate reference N00530, 1842) in which a steamboat battles against the swirling, inescapable embrace of the sea.14 The painting offers a more tempestuous interpretation of the nature versus man, sea versus boat trope than Stevens’s “Fabliau of Florida.” In his Colour Studies watercolors, Turner achieves a similar sense of obscured realism through his extreme simplification of the scene to shapes and planes of color, as well as his attention to slight adjustments in light, shadow, and tone to imply space and volume.
On the sketchbook page depicting A Dark Interior or Curtained Bed, with a Figure or Figures (Tate reference D28841; Turner Bequest CCXCI b 39, ca. 1834-36), Turner interprets his abstract study of light with color.15 The top right corner of the image reveals a dark mass of shadow, which lightens in gradation as it radiates out from the corner. The gradual evolution toward the light demonstrates what Inés Richter-Musso describes as “material forms evaporat[ing] into light and atmosphere” in Turner’s later watercolors verging on the abstract.16 Balancing the dark shadowed area on the right, vibrant cobalt blue in the top left defines the space and atmosphere of the image, manipulated in a zig-zag pattern to resemble the folds of a curtain. The dry-brush effect of the blue conveys a sense of unrest on the surface compared to the fluidity of the shadowy area’s wet-brush application, obscuring two smudged human forms.17 Furthermore, while the white of the paper shows through the blue ‘form,’ the color as well as the marks inform the scene as a study of light and dark defined by an obscuring object—the curtain. Richter-Musso observes that Turner’s use of the white paper to represent light in the scene “is an important step along the path toward abstraction,” which highlights the modernity of his artistic methodology.18
In Turner’s watercolor interiors, light plays the principal role rather than the figures, and maintains a connection to the “chaotic primordial energy” of the landscape even within the gloomy bedroom scenes.19 Likewise, light, color, elements and objects from the natural landscape, celestial bodies, and times of day all become personified protagonists in Stevens’s poems. Stevens’s unconventional characterization of these elements generates a perplexing, yet innovative and compelling aura to his language, an effect that defines the significance of obscurity in both Stevens’s and Turner’s works.
In the second section of his poem, “Six Significant Landscapes” (1916), Stevens writes:
The night is of the colour
Of a woman’s arm:
Night, the female,
Fragrant and supple,
Stevens personifies night by relating the mysterious and romantic quality of moonlight to “the colour/ Of a woman’s arm.”21 The self-obscuring female that Stevens describes as “Night […]/ Conceals herself,” asks the audience to imagine the act of obscuring by way of nightfall and darkness as a woman might don clothes, obscuring one’s view of her body.22 The lines further implore the audience to mentally reconcile an image of distinct color and form, as well as active obscurity and concealment. One might assume that one suggestion represents the complete opposite of the other, but this poem instead exemplifies Stevens’s utilization of color as a tool in the act of obscuring, as well as his fascination with redefining elements of nature. Color essentially becomes the mediator between pure light from the moon and complete darkness from night itself.
In Turner’s sketchbook watercolor study, A Curtained Bed, with the Naked Legs of a Reclining Woman (Tate reference D28795; Turner Bequest CCXCI b 5, ca. 1834–1836), he uses color to create a distinct barrier between light and dark, and also between form and space (fig. 1).23 Bright, rippling streaks of red cut down the left side of the image at a slight diagonal, alternating rich color with near transparency in a play of light against the white surface of the paper in the top left corner. Inside the curtained area of the folding red divide, a woman’s legs bend inward at the knee, raised off the bed. The rest of the woman’s body disappears in a grayish haze in the bottom half of the image, while a black wash in the upper right thrusts the lower legs forward. The red and black strokes, by their color and richness rather than their form, define the space of the image. Turner once said, “Atmosphere is my style” and “indistinctness is my fault;” in this image, he depicts light and shadow at odds, erasing any trace of color and form where they intersect in the hazy atmosphere.24
Through language, Stevens captures a similar sense of haziness, contending with the human figure and obscurity through the evocation of visual elements—like Turner—as well as linguistic and aural elements, in his 1923 poem entitled “Two Figures in Dense Violet Night:”
Be the voice of the night and Florida in my ear.
Use dusky words and dusky images.
Darken your speech.
Speak, even, as if I did not hear you speaking,
But spoke for you perfectly in my thoughts,
As the night conceives the sea-sound in silence,
And out of the droning sibilants makes
Say that the palms are clear in the total blue.
Are clear and are obscure; that it is night;
That the moon shines.25
The light-dimming function of the red curtain in Turner’s watercolor study, which creates an indistinctness in the confined space of the bed, relates directly to the “dusky words,” “dusky images,” and ‘darkened speech’ the poem’s speaker seeks, as can only be conveyed by the “voice of the night.”26 However, even as the majority of Stevens’s poem focuses on oral, aural, and verbal components in a state of limited visibility, the final tercet reintroduces the audience to the visual, colored world. In the final lines, Stevens finds the balance between color and darkness, or clarity and obscurity, with the image of the palms that “[a]re clear and are obscure” in the moonlight that offsets the night.27 Just as Turner’s watercolor balances the darkness of the curtained bed’s interior with exterior light through the application of rich red, the moon in Stevens’s poem balances the “total blue,” promising clarity and the “voice of the night,” which allows only darkness.28
The combination of colors and connotations associated with the ‘total blue’ reflects what George McFadden describes as the space “where the sounds of poetry are shaped out of the creative dark.”29 From this entity, whether representative of the violet night sky or a metaphor for the poet’s mind, something emerges from nothing. Just as the speaker in Stevens’s poem contemplates “Conceiving words,/ As the night conceives the sea-sound in silence,” this concept of creation within the darkness of vacant space represents Stevens’s artistic self-fashioning.30 As in Stevens’s poem, Turner achieves a balance of obscurity and clarity in both imagery and self in his watercolor studies; as a result, Turner heightens the internal battle of light and darkness demonstrated on the watercolors’ surfaces.
The color-centric reading of Stevens’s poems solidifies Harold Bloom’s identification of Stevens as the “last giant” of American Romanticism “who defines the tradition quite as strongly as it informs him.”31 This essay’s comparison of Stevens’s works to those of Turner amplifies Bloom’s statement to delineate how both painter and poet fuse and balance the modern and Romantic. Furthermore, the comparison with Stevens intensifies the significance of Turner’s use of color manipulation—his handling of a single color or pair of contrasting colors to modify a subject and distinguish both the color and the subject in equal measure. For Stevens, the comparison reveals his interest in conveying a visual sensation of transformative energy and movement, as well as the underlying instability and ambiguity in his poems. The subliminal tension stems primarily from his lived experience and observation of a subject—his many poems documenting his vacations in Florida, for example. Ultimately, the juxtaposition of two creators working in separate mediums and time periods uncovers the full richness of their images and poems by drawing out the more radical aspects of their works in a non-linear and tangible way.
For Turner and Stevens, abstraction and obscurity go hand in hand. The two artists employ instruments of obscurity to imply a sense of the imagined and the unknowable. In doing so, they illustrate the sublimity of nature, the creation of image through language, the embodiment of light, and the artistic representation of emotion. Yet, as both artists move toward the edge of the inexplicable, the undefined, and as their narratives appear increasingly obscured, the more necessary and impactful their application of color becomes. Color composes the language by which they navigate unrealistic, mentally-manipulated environments; the ambiguous power of metaphor; the simplification of shape and form; and the images and thoughts too conceptual to otherwise convey.
Amy DeLaBruere received her BA in history of art and English from Yale University and is currently pursuing an MA in history of art and architecture at Boston University. She is particularly interested in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American, French, and British art as well as text and image relationships.
1. Both Lawrence Gowing and John Gage describe the Colour Studies sketchbooks primarily, if not solely, as “erotic” images. Gowing includes a minimal amount of further exploration through visual analysis in his groundbreaking exhibition catalogue, while Gage sees the images as diverting from Turner’s usual subject matter. Lawrence Gowing, Turner: Imagination and Reality (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1966), 24; John Gage, Colour in Turner: Poetry and Truth (New York: Praeger, 1969), 58.
2. To clarify, beyond the two paintings by Turner and two poems by Stevens that are included in this essay, more parallels between the two bodies of work exist and may appear in a larger version of this project.
3. Stevens did not begin his poetic career in earnest until later in life. Despite the fact that Harmonium was Stevens’s first published collection and Turner’s sketchbooks were created during the middle of his artistic career, both artists were of a similar age and maturity. Stevens was forty-four at the time of Harmonium’s publication, and Turner would have been fifty-nine in 1834, the presumed commencement date of his sketchbooks.
4. Glen MacLeod, Wallace Stevens and Modern Art: From the Armory Show to Abstract Expressionism (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1993), 123.
5. Wallace Stevens, “Fabliau of Florida,” in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, 2nd ed., ed. John N. Serio and Chris Beyers (New York: Vintage Books, 2015), 25, lns. 1, 3–5. Referenced poems of Stevens will hereafter be noted by poem title, page number, section number (if applicable), and line number. All citations refer to this edition of Stevens’s Collected Poems.
6. Stevens, “Fabliau of Florida,” 25, lns. 4–5.
7. As this essay makes a comparison across media, the term ‘audience’ is used in place of the distinction between ‘viewer’ and ‘reader.’
8. Stevens, “Fabliau of Florida,” 25, lns. 9–10.
9. Harold Bloom, Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate (Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 1977), 17.
10. Stevens, “Fabliau of Florida,” 25, lns. 4–5, 10.
11. Glen MacLeod, Wallace Stevens and Modern Art: From the Armory Show to Abstract Expressionism (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1993), 157.
12. John McDade, “The Moon Prince and the Angel of Reality,” The Way 28, no. 1 (January 1988): 19–26.
13. Nidhi Khatana, “Wallace Stevens’ Affinities with Romantics,” Indian Journal of Applied Research 3, no. 7 (July 2013): 356–358.
14. J.M.W. Turner, Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, 1842, oil on canvas, 36 in. x 48 in. Tate reference N00530. Tate Britain, London.
15. J.M.W. Turner, A Dark Interior or Curtained Bed, with a Figure or Figures, from Colour Studies, ca. 1834-36, watercolor on paper, 3 in. x 4 in. Tate reference D28841; Turner Bequest CCXCI b 39. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856. Tate Britain, London
16. Inés Richter-Musso, “Fusion,” in Turner and the Elements, ed. Inés Richter-Musso and Ortrud Westheider (Munich: Hirmer, 2011), 209.
17. Monika Wagner, “The Fusion of the Elements in Turner’s Painting,” in Turner and the Elements, ed. Inés Richter-Musso and Ortrud Westheider (Munich: Hirmer, 2011), 65.
18. Richter-Musso, “Fusion,” 208.
19. Ortrud Westheider, “Turner and the Four Classical Elements,” in Turner and the Elements, ed. Inés Richter-Musso and Ortrud Westheider (Munich: Hirmer, 2011), 16.
20. Stevens, “Six Significant Landscapes,” 78, section II, lns. 1–6.
21. Stevens, “Six Significant Landscapes,” 78, section II, lns. 1–2.
22. Stevens, “Six Significant Landscapes,” 78, section II, lns. 3, 6.
23. J.M.W. Turner, A Curtained Bed, with the Naked Legs of a Reclining Woman, from Colour Studies, ca. 1834-36, watercolor on paper, 3 in. x 4 in. Tate reference D28795; Turner Bequest CCXCI b 5. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856. Tate Britain, London. Image courtesy of Tate, London (2022).
24. Jeremy Lewison, “Atmosphere,” in Turner, Monet, Twombly: Later Paintings (London: Tate Publishing, 2011), 112.
25. Stevens, “Two Figures in Dense Violet Night,” 92, lns. 4–12, 16–18.
26. Stevens, “Two Figures in Dense Violet Night,” 92, lns. 4–6.
27. Stevens, “Two Figures in Dense Violet Night,” 92, lns. 17.
28. Stevens, “Two Figures in Dense Violet Night,” 92, lns. 16, 4.
29. George McFadden, “Probings for an Integration: Color Symbolism in Wallace Stevens,” Modern Philology 58, no. 3 (February 1961), 187.
30. Stevens, “Two Figures in Dense Violet Night,” 92, lns. 9–10.
31. Harold Bloom, “Introduction” in Wallace Stevens: Modern Critical Views, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985), 10.