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Art / The Fighting Temeraire

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The Fighting Temeraire (in full, The Fighting Temeraire, tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838) is an 1838 painting by British artist JMW Turner. It depicts the Napoleonic-period sailing warship HMS Temeraire being towed to the scrapyard by a steam tug, with a dramatic sunset in the background. It was highly popular from the first, and Turner left it to the nation when he died; it is on display at the National Gallery in London.

The painting combines melancholy symbolism, patriotic references (the Temeraire's wartime honours included the famous and crucial Battle of Trafalgar), and a dazzling, almost abstract sunset. Hence, it's not surprising that its popularity has endured to the modern day; it was voted Britain's favourite by the listeners of a radio programme in 2005, and in 2020, it was reproduced on a banknote honouring Turner. It also shows up in the James Bond movie Skyfall.

Only indirectly related to the historical fantasy novel Temeraire; the dragon in that book is named after the same ship.


Tropes Invoked by the Painting:

  • Artistic License: The painting does not realistically represent the real event (which Turner may or may not have witnessed — he did spend a lot of time on and around the Thames); records show that the Temeraire had its masts removed before it went to the scrapyard, it was towed by two tugs rather than one, and it would have travelled westwards, into the sunset rather than out of it. The Rule of Symbolism applies.
  • Empathic Environment: The calm, misty, beautiful weather creates the mood of the painting.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: The full title is entirely unambiguous.
  • Old Soldier: Symbolically; the Temeraire is a military veteran at the end of its career.
  • Riding into the Sunset: Inverted, in that the vessels are coming out of the sunset, but the significance — the sunset is beautiful but represents finality — stands.
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  • Symbolism: The painting is saturated with melancholy end-of-an-era symbolism.
  • Wooden Ships and Iron Men: The painting marks the very end of that era, with the replacement of sail by steam.