J.M.W. Turner and the Subject of History: 1st Edition (Hardback) book cover

J.M.W. Turner and the Subject of History

1st Edition

By Leo Costello


306 pages

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J.M.W. Turner and the Subject of History is an in-depth consideration of the artist's complex response to the challenge of creating history paintings in the early nineteenth century. Structured around the linked themes of making and unmaking, of creation and destruction, this book examines how Turner's history paintings reveal changing notions of individual and collective identity at a time when the British Empire was simultaneously developing and fragmenting. Turner similarly emerges as a conflicted subject, one whose artistic modernism emerged out of a desire to both continue and exceed his eighteenth-century aesthetic background by responding to the altered political and historical circumstances of the nineteenth century.


Winner, Paul Mellon Centre Publication Grant

'This book’s thick-textured narrative, abounding with theory and informed by a wealth of current and contemporary source material, will please specialist readers… Highly recommended.' Choice

'Costello’s monograph has real virtues. As one would expect from an account of Turner’s ’historical’ subjects, the author is as deft at binding Turner’s pictorial account into what was recorded of the actual sequences of events, and he is very good at working sequences of drawings into discussions of the geneses of particular paintings. Indeed, he is exceptionally good at writing about pictures. He looks closely, is alert to what he sees, and is acutely aware of what paint surfaces can communicate. Likewise, his account of Turner at the Royal Academy’s Varnishing Days is terrific, communicating a real understanding of what the very existence of this element of the academic calendar meant more generally within the history of early nineteenth-century British art.' The Burlington Magazine

'One of the most impressive pieces of Turner criticism to have been published for several years.' Turner Society News

'… impressively researched … Instead of the transcendent sublime it repeatedly directs attention to the dark underbelly of violence, disintegration, decomposition, and destruction in Turner’s creative process as well as in the reception of his works.' Wordsworth Circle

'Costello is a sensitive interpreter of Turner's paintings, and many of the finest moments in the book are those in which the author looks closely and hard at the individual images … he provides a compelling account of why they continue to haunt us.' Victorian Studies

Table of Contents

Contents: Introduction; 'A great and dreadful sea-fight': The Battle of Trafalgar (1806-8) and the end of contemporary history painting; 'The conception of a swamp'd world': destruction and creation in painting/history; 'This cross-fire of colours': Turner and the varnishing days; 'In Venice now': history, nature, and the body of the subject; The Slave Ship: painting/abolition/history; Conclusion; Bibliography; Index.

About the Author

Leo Costello is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Art History at Rice University, USA.

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
ART / History / General
ART / History / Romanticism