Turner on the Seine

The image above is another one of Turner’s lesser-known paintings, Mouth of the Seine, Quille-Boeuf (1833), a distinctively Turnerian picture. Serene upon first glance, the picture actually incorporates violent elemental forces. Near the small French town of Quillebeuf-sur-Seine (which Turner visited), a concentrated narrow channel of the river opens out and meets the full force of the sea, thus rendering the surrounding waters hazardous; tidal variations and shifting sand make is nearly impossible to navigate one’s boat. Quillebeuf is an important place on the Seine, by virtue of its position between two segments of the river – all boats have to break journey in the town in order to sail safely up or down the river. Interestingly, on the right-hand side of the painting, there is concealed amongst the grey-blue waves what appears to be the topmast of a ship, faint but undeniable upon closer inspection. The destructiveness of nature is thus portrayed, complemented by the presence on the left-hand side of the painting of a seagull attacking a fish, another instance of death in nature.

This picture always reminds me of a quote from De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis (1845), about a Jamaican port city, Savannah-la-Mar, that was hit by a tidal wave:

‘God smote Savannah-la-Mar, and in one night, by earthquake, removed her, with all her towers standing and population sleeping […] And God said – “Pompeii did I bury and conceal from men through seventeen centuries: this city I will bury, but not conceal. She shall be a monument to men of my mysterious anger; set in azure light through generations to come: for I will enshrine her in a crystal dome of my tropic seas”‘.

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