When first asked to exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1796, the 21-year-old Turner eagerly took the opportunity to break from his working class antecedents and reputation as a journeyman engraver, setting out to create a painting that would show off his manifest talents. His efforts succeeded immediately in catapulting his status with both peers and the public, and Fishermen at Sea remains a marvel to this day.
At first glance, his accomplishment could be seen simply as a mash-up of popular contemporary genres: Romantic notions of man in thrall to (and drawing sustenance from) nature, seascapes like those of Horace Vernet and John Pocock, and the then-vogue for nocturnal scenes of all types. But Turner extends the scope of genre here by depicting a scene that is at once easy to imagine (about 25% of Britain’s population flourished near, or made a living from the sea) and impossible to see. Prohibitively close for land viewing, and necessarily impeded by night blindness from any lighted vessel, it’s like a voyeuristic opportunity to see a baby growing in the womb — “so, that’s how it might be!” — a true leap to that which cannot be seen unaided by a more powerful tool or a stronger imagination. Of course, this is the man who later tied himself to a mast of a ship to create the impressionistic Steamer in a Snowstorm (1842), and went on to produce the first substantial oeuvre of Western Impressionism, successfully escaping the world of conventional depictions for strikingly imagined ones. Nineteenth century audiences could not foresee this (indeed, they were largely bewildered by Turner’s impressionistic ventures), but an avant-garde component seems apparent now upon viewing Fishermen at Sea and other of his early realist paintings.
Probably more potent to early viewers were Turner’s extraordinary skills of lighting and brushwork. Reproductions wreath the canvas’s primary focus in black, but once you stand in front of this painting there is a lot to look at inside the shadows. The moon is delicious and every object is carefully polished by Turner’s varied use of its light. The warm lamp-glow of the fishermen engaged in prosaic tasks must be judged differently after examining the shadowy and menacing needles of stone and possible storm gathered behind them. Turner brilliantly handles the admixture of color temperatures throughout the painting, even in the shadows, creating a seamlessly easy naturalism that any painter of night scenes knows is extremely difficult to capture.
Having seen Fishermen at Sea at its usual home at the Tate, and then repeatedly when it travelled recently to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, I can attest that I am not alone in being blown away by this painting. It stops everybody, but after the crowd moves on there are those who still stand long and stunned before it, and even exclaim aloud, surprised at its mortal improbability.