an astonishing if now destitute relic


Turner’s singular emergence as a young painter in the late eighteenth century was not a random occurrence, nor is he an isolated or anomalous figure. His untimeliness is paradoxically and necessarily the product of a specific interval in time, a period of perhaps four or five decades between the Revolution of 1789 and the failures of 1848. It was a brief interregnum, a privileged and never to be repeated window onto the raw outlines of a stunning new realm of possibilities. Apprehensible to Turner and some of his peers were a boundless earth, unforeseen multitudes, and flows of wealth, charged with forces and destinies at once terrifying and wondrous. To position Turner in this way has nothing to do with labeling him a “poet of industrialization” because he painted a few steamboats or a train. Rather, he had a piercing if inchoate sense that there had been a rift or swerve in time itself. To understand his project means thinking him as part of a constellation that includes William Blake, Géricault, Toussaint-Louverture, Marx, Melville, Balzac, Robert Owen, and others—individuals who, within the vertiginous falling away of familiar stabilities and certainties, saw revelatory flashes of what would (or could) follow in the wake of a new universal humanity on the one hand and the invisible and deracinated powers of capital on the other.

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