Great Art: A Subject from the Runic Superstitions … by J. M. W. Turner (Interpretation and Analysis)

A Subject from the Runic Superstitions …
Source: The Tate

As Halloween approaches, I want to share one of the darkest and most mysterious paintings out there: A Subject from the Runic Superstitions.

​​The piece was created by J. M. W. Turner, who is quite possibly the most famous British artist of the modern age (maybe the most famous British painter ever.) Turner is famous for his unique and energetic style. Today, he is known for his imaginative and expressive masterpieces.

A Subject from the Runic Superstitions dates from relatively early in Turner’s career. The piece depicts a strange and difficult to decipher scene. A shadowy figure sits on a hillside gesturing towards a mysterious light surrounded by faint, ghostly figures. The night sky stretches out above, illuminated by a bright moon. Other details are hard to make out; only the outlines of trees and the indistinct shapes of snakes writhing on the ground are visible. The exact meaning of this painting is unclear. There is no clear story or message behind the piece.

That being said, according to my research, a few years later Turner created a similar watercolor titled Rispah. The piece depicts an Old Testament story in which Saul’s concubine Rizpah protected the decaying bodies of her sons from nocturnal predators after their deaths.

Rispah
Source: The Tate

Although A Subject from the Runic Superstitions doesn’t explicitly have anything to do with this biblical story, the two pieces do share a sinister and mysterious atmosphere. According to my research, contemporary viewers related A Subject from the Runic Superstitions to runic or Norse traditions. However, I think it makes more sense to view the piece as a representation of superstition more generally. Here, we see something supernatural and bizarre emerging from the night.

It is this atmosphere of unearthly dread that makes the painting interesting (and a good candidate for spooky, October art). Turner himself was deeply interested in the idea of atmosphere. He used a loose painterly style and a unique color palette to capture the extremes and variety of the natural world. His style is fluid; his use of paint and brushstrokes created a light almost ephemeral effect. As a result, A Subject from the Runic Superstitions is both fantastic and puzzling, a peculiar and unique work of art.

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