January 31, 2023

J.M.W. Turner's Burning World

Event Series: A Bent but Beautiful World: Literature, Art, and the Environment

Showing the J.M.W. Turner's Burning World Video

In this talk, Nathan Hensley will show how J.M.W. Turner’s still-astonishing paintings of Victorian energy transition capture a society in the midst of realizing it was killing itself. With readings of famous canvases, unfinished works, and tiny sketchbooks, Hensley will revise the common understanding of Turner’s atmospheric approach to modernization by describing the material composition of the paintings themselves. For Turner, participation in modern ruin was also a matter of pigment chemistry, painterly gesture, and experiments with point of view whereby the shipwreck of the world is viewed not from the safety of shore but from inside the vortex (Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth, 1842). This argument draws on chemical studies of Turner’s palettes and concludes with an account of Turner’s undisplayed sketchbooks, which refuse the maximalist vocabularies of his academic work in favor of the intimate, the gestural, and the unfinished: three aesthetic categories Hensley will offer as counterpoints to world-scaled terms like "the Anthropocene" and even "climate change."

Michael Scott, director of the Future of the Humanities Project, will provide opening and closing remarks, and Kathryn Temple, a Future of the Humanities Project senior fellow, will moderate a Q&A session following the presentation.

This event is sponsored by the Future of the Humanities Project; the Georgetown Humanities Initiative; the Georgetown Master's Program in the Engaged and Public Humanities; Campion Hall, Oxford; and the Las Casas Institute (Blackfriars Hall, Oxford). It is part of the one-year-long series A Bent but Beautiful World: Literature, Art, and the Environment.


Nathan K. Hensley

Nathan K. Hensley

Nathan K. Hensley is the author of Forms of Empire: The Poetics of Victorian Sovereignty (2016) and coeditor, with Philip Steer, of Ecological Form: System and Aesthetics in the Age of Empire (2018). He is currently associate professor of English at Georgetown University, where he teaches courses on Victorian literature, critical theory, and the environmental humanities. His current project is about failing systems and small-scale practices of action.

Kathryn Temple

Kathryn Temple

Kathryn Temple (moderator) is a professor in the Department of English at Georgetown University where she has taught since 1994. She specializes in the study of law and the humanities. Among her publications are Loving Justice: Legal Emotions in William Blackstone’s England (2019) and the co-edited Research Handbook on Law and Emotions (2021). Her humanities outreach activities include work with military veterans and the incarcerated.