Great Paintings: Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps by J. M. W. Turner

J. M. W. Turner is quite possibly the most famous British artist of the modern age; actually, he’s probably 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.

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps dates from the early years of his artistic career. It is a monumental piece of art, nearly five feet by eight feet. Most of the canvas is dominated by a turbulent sky scape composed of billowing clouds and driving gales of snow. The sun is nearly invisible, only a tiny yellow circle in the sky.

The painting depicts a famous event from Roman history. During the Second Punic War, the Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca crossed the alps to bring war to the Romans. Although the Romans eventually won the war, Hannibal’s achievement is widely celebrated throughout military history. Turner’s painting captures this epic moment.

While most paintings of this historical event focus on General Hannibal and his soldiers, Turner’s piece focuses on the mighty force of the natural world. In this painting, Hannibal’s soldiers are tiny, almost invisible against a background of jagged stones. Hannibal himself is not even visible. Rather than celebrating a military victory, Turner’s painting zeroes in on something more fundamental and primal: the struggle between humankind and the power of nature.

In the face of freezing cold and driving snow, even hardened soldiers and famous generals crumble. Human vulnerability is on full display here, a sharp contrast from the glory and drama usually depicted in history paintings.

It is truly a modern piece of art, one that challenges the conventions of the contemporary art world. It is also modern in its style. The sky is painted in a loose, painterly style that wouldn’t look amiss in an abstract painting one hundred years later. Because of this, Turner’s work continues to engage and fascinate modern viewers. Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps is just one of his dynamic and shocking masterpieces.

Originally published at on December 3, 2020.



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