Is this how Mark Twain described a painting of English Artist William Turner?
Because I am interested in the Sun, I have been reading Chasing the Sun, The Epic Story of the Star That Gives Us Life by Richard Cohen. Chapter 24 (“Drawing on the Sun”) relates to the Sun in art, something that normally would not be of great interest to me. I like art, don’t get me wrong, but much of what passes for art certainly does not fit my taste. I remember once describing a piece of modern art as making me think that someone had thrown dirty dishwater onto a white towel and then framed it.
On the other hand, I do like certain pieces of Impressionism, and I came across a quote that intrigued me in on page 431 of Cohen’s book. It was a description of an unnamed painting by William Turner, who was obsessed with light, especially sunlight, and color in landscapes. This painting, Cohen writes, was described by Mark Twain as “like a ginger cat having a fit in a bowl of tomatoes.”
As a fan of Twain, it did not take much to conjure up an image in my mind, and the quote gave me the giggles every time I read it. Certainly it sounds like Twain, but Cohen gave no reference for the quotation in his otherwise well documented work. He did not even identify the specific painting, which I now desperately wanted to view myself.
I thought that if I could find the context of the quotation I could determine which of Turner’s paintings it was. At first I searched Google and came up only repetitions of the supposed quotation, with useless and vague references that were no good at all. Interestingly, many of the instances I found were unattributed repetitions of specifically phrased quotations apparently from other web sites. In other words, they were plagiarized quotations of the quotation.
Next I tried my own small collection of Twain’s work, in paper form, and found nothing. Finally, I decided to search as well as I could among the Twain offerings on the Gutenberg Project (http://www.gutenberg.org/). I never found the exact quotation, but I came pretty darn close in “A Tramp Abroad.”
It referenced a Turner painting, “Slave Ship” and this phrase: “A Boston newspaper reporter went and took a look at the Slave Ship floundering about in that fierce conflagration of reds and yellows, and said it reminded him of a tortoise-shell cat having a fit in a platter of tomatoes.”
That was it. The quotation got mangled a bit, but the image in my mind was the same. So it was not Twain’s quotation per se, but rather his repetition of the words of an anonymous reporter. Still, was there really a “Boston reporter,” or was this fiction, as is much of Twain’s book? I guess we will never know, but at least now I know the painting and the correct quotation.
The painting is not quite as wild and psychedelic as I had imagined, but the description fits it well. Incidentally, just last evening I saw similar coloration in the sunset sky from Denver, although certainly not as busy and intense as in Turner’s painting. In the painting, the actual objects take second place to the mood and lighting. Even the Sun, our mighty day star, was reduced to a bright smudge. It took me a while before I even saw the ship itself, and longer to notice some, shall we say more “sinister” aspects. Take a look for yourself.
From Mark Twain’s “A Tramp Abroad”:
And then there is painting. What a red rag is to a bull, Turner’s “Slave Ship” was to me, before I studied art. Mr. Ruskin is educated in art up to a point where that picture throws him into as mad an ecstasy of pleasure as it used to throw me into one of rage, last year, when I was ignorant. His cultivation enables him—and me, now—to see water in that glaring yellow mud, and natural effects in those lurid explosions of mixed smoke and flame, and crimson sunset glories; it reconciles him—and me, now—to the floating of iron cable-chains and other unfloatable things; it reconciles us to fishes swimming around on top of the mud—I mean the water. The most of the picture is a manifest impossibility—that is to say, a lie; and only rigid cultivation can enable a man to find truth in a lie. But it enabled Mr. Ruskin to do it, and it has enabled me to do it, and I am thankful for it. A Boston newspaper reporter went and took a look at the Slave Ship floundering about in that fierce conflagration of reds and yellows, and said it reminded him of a tortoise-shell cat having a fit in a platter of tomatoes. In my then uneducated state, that went home to my non-cultivation, and I thought here is a man with an unobstructed eye. Mr. Ruskin would have said: This person is an ass. That is what I would say, now.
Months after this was written, I happened into the National Gallery in London, and soon became so fascinated with the Turner pictures that I could hardly get away from the place. I went there often, afterward, meaning to see the rest of the gallery, but the Turner spell was too strong; it could not be shaken off. However, the Turners which attracted me most did not remind me of the Slave Ship.
A Tramp Abroad on Gutenberg.org:
Quote above near the end of Chapter XXIV (24), just search for “tortoise-shell”
The Slave Ship painting by Turner:
J.M.W. Turner, The Slave Ship (1840). Oil on canvas. 90.8 × 122.6 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Chasing the Sun by Richard Cohen