A cross-channel ferry (a packet), fully laden with passengers and flying a British flag, is approaching the port of Calais. Around it, small French fishing boats (‘poissards’) head out to sea. The water is rough and dark storm clouds gather, although a shaft of sunlight breaks through to illuminate the white sail in the centre of the picture. In the lower right foreground, a small fishing boat is trying to get away to avoid being battered against the pier. The scene looks chaotic and there is a risk of collision.
Turner’s painting is based on an actual event he experienced, when he travelled from Dover to Calais in 1802 on his first trip abroad and was ‘nearly swampt‘ in a storm at sea. Although it had a mixed response when first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1803, the critic John Ruskin declared it to be the first painting to show signs of ‘Turner’s colossal power’.
Calais Pier is based upon an actual event. On 15 July 1802, Turner, aged 27, began his first trip abroad, travelling from Dover to Calais in a cross-channel ferry (a packet) of the type shown here. The weather was stormy, and Turner noted in his sketchbook: ‘Our landing at Calais. Nearly swampt.’
In the painting, a ferry (centre left), fully laden with passengers and flying a British flag, is approaching the port of Calais on the northern French coast. Around it, small French fishing boats head out to the open sea. In his title, Turner refers to these fishing boats as ‘French poissards,’ which appears to be his own idiosyncratic adaptation of the French word poissarde (‘fishwife’). The sea is rough and dark storm clouds gather, although a shaft of sunlight breaks through to illuminate the white sail in the centre of the picture. The entire scene looks chaotic and there is a risk of a collision. In the lower right foreground, a small fishing boat is trying to get away to avoid being battered against the pier.
Full of incident and detail, this is one of Turner’s largest and most complex maritime paintings. Its dramatic storm scene was also a significant milestone in the development of British maritime painting. The critic John Ruskin, an early supporter of Turner, described it as ‘the richest, wildest and most difficult composition'. The painting also includes one of Turner’s most ambitious figure groups, as he shows the French fishermen attempting to cast off while agitated women look on from the windswept pier. The number and variety of animated figures combines the activity of Dutch genre painting with an almost comic element that recalls Hogarth – for instance, a departing sailor holds up a flagon to be filled by a woman holding a bottle. Dutch maritime painting was an important precedent for Turner, and he may have been stimulated to paint Calais Pier when, towards the end of his trip, he saw (and sketched) Jacob van Ruisdael’s A Storm at Sea off the Dykes of Holland (1670) in the Louvre.
When exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1803, Calais Pier met with a mixed reception that marked the beginning of the critical disapproval of Turner’s work that would continue until his death. Criticism of the picture focused especially on his method of painting the foreground and the sea. Viewers more accustomed to the smooth translucent glazes of traditional marine paintings were particularly resistant to Turner’s visible brushwork and his impasto (thickly applied paint), often laid on with a palette knife. You can see this clearly in the white foam of the waves. Although acknowledging Turner’s precocious talent, critics compared his use of paint to blots, batter, pea soup, smoke, a mix of soap and chalk, and the veins on a marble slab. The painting was unsold and remained in Turner’s possession.
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