89: The Gift of Imperfect Sight

The trouble with, and glory of, Ruskin is his infinitude.

Just when you are ready to post something you think is pretty terrific, something equally, or even more, terrific shows up. That’s what’s happening with today’s post.

Two days ago, I had a lovely little post ready and then, this morning, I read what’s below, a passage which struck me so forcefully that I changed my mind and allowed it to usurp that lovely little bit (a springtime delight!). The central reason for the surplanting is that I thought these few sentences perfectly described something that happens to all of us all the time. They are, in their accurate recording of one of our imperfections, at the same time, inspiring, hopeful, and helpful–another instance of one of those many surprising “asides” one comes across when reading Ruskin–in this case, the fourth volume of his Modern Painters series. He wrote there:

Things may always be seen truly by candid people, though never completely. No human capacity ever yet saw the whole of a thing. But we may see more and more of it the longer we look. Every individual temper will see something different in it. But, supposing the tempers honest, all the differences are there. Every advance in our accuteness of perception will show us something new. But the old and first-discovered thing will still be there, not falsified, only modified and enriched by the new perceptions, becoming continually more beautiful in its harmony with them, and more approved as a part of the infinite truth.

Lovely, yes? And so, in an attempt to prove him (as per usual) right in his insight, I present below a Turner painting and some thoughts I’ve had concerning it which have emerged during the last couple of years. 

I apologize at the outset, because the reproduction below, although it is the best I could find out there in cyberspace, is woefully inadaquate as a representation of the glowing original. If you find a better, let me know!). It is of J. M. W. Turner’s “The Harbor of Dieppe,” a port in northern France. Turner painted it in 1825. The painting’s permanent home is as a high ranking member of the remarkable Frick Collection in New York City. There, normally, the huge canvas assumes, as well it should, the central space on one of the two walls of a long gallery, a gallery quite literally bursting with masterpieces by the world’s greatest masters. (Another Turner, of equally elevated rank, “Cologne: The Arrival of a Packet Boat,” centers the pictures of the opposite wall.)

Harbour of Dieppe (Changement de Domicile) exhibited 1825 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Ruskin, as almost everyone reading this entry surely knows, was the greatest champion of Turner’s genius there has ever been. [Earlier (Post 37), I reviewed a film biography of him, “Mr. Turner,” my enthusiasm of it damped by the director’s choice to present his audience with not only an unflattering, but a grossly inaccurate, character “study” of Mr. Ruskin.]

The wonderful thing about this “Dieppe” painting is that, because I am frequently in New York, and almost always when there, go to The Frick, I get to see and think about it often, a series of encoutners which have afforded me the chance to test Ruskin’s remarks about the gift of imperfect sight, even though, at the time, I had no idea that I was so testing.

On a first viewing of “Dieppe,” the person looking at the whole is all but overwhelmed by the glorious light that suffuses the entire picture: it dazzles, dances, delights, bestows a warmth to the world which, moments ago, out on the Manhattan street, one had no idea existed! A second look gets one thinking about how astonishing it is that Turner is capable of giving us, simultaneously, an impression of Dieppe along with what is surely a relatively realistic rendering. A third leads to thoughts about the life of this early nineteenth century city and its apparently complete dependence on the sea: everywhere, but especially on the docks depicted on the painting’s right side, people are bustling, energetically doing this job or that so that they can make their various livings: it is a lively place, a place, one thinks, it would have been nice to visit.

But another trip takes one’s thoughts in another direction: to reflections about the symbolic nature of the work, of what seems to be its suggestion that, for the good souls of Dieppe, the life of the spirit has assumed a secondary place to the demands of daily life–else why would Turner have placed the tower of the city’s cathedral in a hazy distance, else why would he have chosen to make the sails of some ships anchored in the harbor higher and larger than that cathedral’s tower? Augmenting this idea are others stimulated by the painting’s subtitle: “Changement de Domicle” (“Change of Address”). On the right, if we look carefully, we can make out (alas not easily in this reproduction!) a couple surrounded by their household goods, as though they are engaged in moving from one living space to another. But to make this image of a move the subtitle of the work is most interesting because, considering the canvas as a whole, the couple are but a tiny part of it. So there may be a deeper meaning: the suggestion that, in a rapidly changing world, a monumental shift is underway, as a simpler, faith-centered culture succombs to a more modern, money-centered one. This interpretation seems enhanced by what appears to be Turner’s suggestion that the city’s relation to life-giving nature is not particularly high on its list of priorites. The sun is painted twice, most promiently, as a large but indistinct wash of white and yellow above the city, as if it has been dimmed by the enormous volume of dust generated by the city’s daily doings; second, and much more clearly, we see the sun as an image shimmering in the port’s waters; but there, its reflection is surrounded, as though it were imprisoned, by the many, much darker waters surrounding it.

But always, when viewers step back, they are awed by the consummate beauty of this painting, by the realization that, whatever the correct interpreation of it may be (I make no claim that my comments are the “right” ones!), the painting is a work of transcendant genius, a glorious evocation of life and of the creation which has made that life possible.

The gift of imperfect sight.

Thanks–many!–to Mr. Ruskin for reminding us of our precious imperfection, and, of course, to Mr. Turner for giving us a chance to profit (in the correct sense of that word!) by it!

Until next time!



P.S.: I have another reason for highlighting this great Turner painting. Now–and until May 14 (a window quickly closing!)–if you go to The Frick you can avail your touring self of a magnificent show: “Turner’s Modern and Ancient Ports.” Not only does it present to its visitors’ view the two paintings mentioned above, but many other Turners that have been brought from Europe or loaned by private collections for the exhibition, including (hardly least to say,) a selection of Turner’s spectaculr watercolors (much beloved by Ruskin). Here’s a link: Turner at The Frick. If you go, I’d love to hear what you think about it!

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