The Observed Landscape

Joseph Mallord William Turner (English, 1775–1851), Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water, 1840. Oil on canvas. Clark Art Institute, 1955.37

Turner and Constable painted a wide range of landscapes and seascapes throughout their careers. The environments they depicted were often familiar, beloved places that shed light on the personal narratives of the artists. Others were new places—especially for the enthusiastic traveler Turner—striking for their distinctive geography and sometimes powerful weather events.

When the artists incorporated figures into their landscapes, the humans were more than staffage, or markers of scale. In the works assembled in this section of the exhibition, the people depicted actively observe the world around them. Their example, in turn, invites viewers of the paintings and drawings to do the same. Whether walking on a beach during a calm day, battling extreme forces of nature during a maritime rescue, or witnessing a landmark celebration replete with military fanfare, the figures in these works record human responses to landscapes that are ever changing, in subtle and sometimes dramatic ways.