Ever painted a rainbow? This was my task last week – to paint a rainbow onto a bedroom wall for a little girl. It made me think about how intriguing rainbows are. The one I painted was strong, bright and solid. Good, that’s exactly what a child would want. Yet the rainbows I often see outside my window are ethereal, luminescent and delicate as a butterfly’s wing. Looking out over the sea, the rainbows I study are continually changing before my eyes, like living things. At one moment the brightness is breathtaking. At the next it becomes transparent and ghostly. And should you try to reach the end of the rainbow (in the hope of finding a pot of gold, perhaps?) it dissipates and vanishes, like trying to grasp the wind with your fingers.
Thinking about rainbows made me look again at the paintings by J.M.W. Turner. With his penchant for vibrant colour, I was surprised to find that the rainbows he painted are really not like that at all. Some are even portrayed as white.
This painting is called ‘Kilchurn Castle’, which is scarcely discernible in the background against the majestic Scottish landscape of its location, a truly sublime treatment of the subject matter. By sublime I mean the romantic landscape genre of the eighteenth century, which wanted to portray man’s smallness in the face of the great wonders of nature. This painting certainly communicates that message.
I’ve also found another example of a white rainbow, in a painting by Turner called ‘Buttermere Lake: A Shower’. Unlike ‘Kilchurn Castle’, the palette used makes the confining of the rainbow to a whitish hue understandable. Does this just accentuate his priorities? That composition, and the constraints of formal considerations such as colour and tone, played a much larger part in Turner’s work than observation? Perhaps he felt that the colours involved would detract from the work as a whole.
Then I found that he painted a small watercolour called ‘The Rainbow’ , a tiny thing of a mere 9 and 3/8 inches by 11 and7/8. Again, it has not been important to him to denote the colours that he must have seen. Instead, the rainbow is interpreted as brightness, some of the colour of which has permeated the rest of the compostion. In addition, he has caught that stage of the rainbow where it is still coming into being, and isn’t quite yet complete. The form of it, as a source of luminescence seems to be much more important than anything else to Turner, and as a result, he has caught something of the mystery of a rainbow. But there is a dark arc in the centre of it. Is this a double rainbow? Or is it a streak of pessimism?
In another painting, called ‘Arundel Castle with Rainbow’, the portrayal of it is much more conventional, yet it still has a band of white light through the middle of the arc rather than an observation of colour. The interesting thing here is that Turner has been concerned to paint a reflection of the rainbow in the water. The solidity of this particular rainbow is such that you can’t see Arundel Castle through it. It’a brightness is so vivid that it dominates the water as well, though the water is visible through it. Is it the rainbow, rather than the castle, that is the subject of this painting? And why not call it ‘Rainbow with windmill’? Arundel Castle is negligible.
The last painting I want to show you is called ‘The Wreck Buoy’, oil on canvas, painted in 1849. This painting (seen below) has been graced by a comment from a contemporary writer and champion of Turner’s, John Ruskin, who wrote about this piece that it was:
“the last oil he painted before his noble hand forgot its cunning.”
The painting hangs in Sudley House, part of the National Museums Liverpool, and their website describes this painting as expressing “the artist’s pessimistic view of human endeavour and the fallacy of hope (is) symbolised by the rainbow and the wreck buoy beneath it.” Certainly this rainbow has had all joy taken out of it. It has almost lost its own character of light and luminescence, as it could be interpreted as an arc of water instead of colour, which is what I thought it was when I first saw it. Perhaps the ship in the background is in peril, as the title might suggest, and the rainbow is here included as a touch of cynicism. Does this make Turner the first ‘modern’? Or even, possibly, postmodern??
Yet we won’t let this gloomy view of things get us down, even when it is put forward by an artist of such eminence. Turner’s transcription cannot alter the impact of the rainbow that we see in the real world. The rainbow is elegant and breathtaking; solid yet subtle; scientifically explained yet mysterious; a vital part of our visible world, yet speaking of something much higher and quite invisible. It is white light, yet it is a band of seven distinct colours. We are told that it even has a place in heaven, and arches over the very throne of God. It is a thing of both beauty and promise. So along with Wordsworth, my heart certainly does leap up when I behold a rainbow in the sky, as I expect yours does too. Sadly, Turner may not ever have had such a response to it. His view may have been jaundiced by his personal circumstances, and life as he experienced it. He was, in the end, a very lonely man. But that’s no reason why I should weaken my appreciation. Go back to the photograph at the top of this post if you need convincing.