The Goldfinch and the Fighting Temeraire

I catch myself thinking about my life in London last semester from time to time, now a distant landmark suspended in memory. I think about the places I visited: local pubs and comedy clubs, Covent Garden and Tate Modern, holiday markets and chic cafes. I think about the Tube line I took every morning to work and wonder what those once-packed trains look like today. I think of the books I read; One of them was The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – a favorite as of late.

In The Goldfinch, Tartt traverses endless topics, themes, and tropes. (And really – you’d hope so. Who, other than maybe some crazy post-modernist, would write an almost 800-page novel without at least covering some ground?) Among them, she talks of art.

“What’s to say? Great paintings–people flock to see them, they draw crowds, they’re reproduced endlessly on coffee mugs and mouse pads and anything-you-like. And, I count myself in the following, you can have a lifetime of perfectly sincere museum-going where you traipse around enjoying everything and then go out and have some lunch. But–” crossing back to the table to sit again “–if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you. An individual heart-shock.”

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

I am thinking about art these days. I’m not quite sure why though. In London, I would wander into the National Gallery on some weekends, never leaving without visiting the Turner’s. The Fighting Temeraire hangs there – a piece completed by JMW Turner in 1839 of a steamboat tugging Temeraire, a wooden masted ship. I first found out about this painting in a course on Romantic poetry and paintings I took last year this time – aptly, rightfully, and un-creatively titled Poets and Painters. In a course where pieces of art begin blurring together even for the most art-appreciating students – my professor spent the bulk of each 2-hour long seminar rifling through painting after painting on a slideshow – it was one of the few that immediately caught my eye. (Which might not be saying much these days as even a subpar street taco will very much catch my eye.)

The Fighting Temeraire, JMW Turner, 1839

The Fighting Temeraire, JMW Turner, 1839

There is a lot that can be said about The Fighting Temeraire. It is, for many, the greatest British painting. The artist, JMW Turner, is to British art as the Beatles are to music. There is a sense of loss as the steamboat – gunmetal black, blazing smokestack, vivid color and all – tugs a faded Temeraire to shore. Among the last masted ships to be used in battle by the British, Temeraire was decommissioned and scrapped after this scene. Coupled with the setting sun on the right and the rising moon in the upper left hand corner, few pieces mark the end of an era and the birth of a new one so evocatively and gracefully as Turner’s. Turner manages to capture the fiery, heroic yet dying traditions of past days with his reds and oranges while enlisting blues that envelop the ships to mark the bold yet cold attitudes ushered in by machinery and the Industrial Age.

“And isn’t the whole point of things–beautiful things–that they connect you to some larger beauty? Those first images that crack your heart wide open and you spend the rest of your life chasing, or trying to recapture, in one way or another?”

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

I remember sitting in class seeing this piece for the first time as my professor spoon fed me analysis, feeling while it depicted a world of centuries ago, it still represented the world today. And this timelessness is the ultimate beauty in it – and in any good piece. I don’t doubt that everyone who has seen it and understands it feels some kind of connection to their existence and their time – simply because eras are always ending and new ages are always beginning.

“You see one painting, I see another, the art book puts it at another remove still, the lady buying the greeting card at the museum gift shop sees something else entire, and that’s not even to mention the people separated from us by time–four hundred years before us, four hundred years after we’re gone–it’ll never strike anybody the same way and the great majority of people it’ll never strike in any deep way at all but–a really great painting is fluid enough to work its way into the mind and heart through all kinds of different angles, in ways that are unique and very particular.”

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Also, it just so happens that Tartt’s The Goldfinch is named after a painting of the same name so, in some ways, we’ve been talking about two pieces. There’s no real ending I’m getting at here–I just think that art, like literature, is a means of understanding our lives–but if there must be a silver lining then Turner’s piece The Fighting Temeraire puts it best: new days are coming. If not–while we don’t have taco truck tacos, at least Chick-fil-a is still open for drive-thru.

“And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.”

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt