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Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps

Collection: 
Tate, London

 

Albert Boime explains how Snowstorm subtly commented on domestic unrest:

 “At home, internal strife had erupted in 1811, a year of wide-spread unemployment and rioting. The high prices and scarcity provoked the Luddite revolts – a name given to organized bands of English striking workers who destroyed machinery. The machine-breaking riots began toward the end of 1811 in Nottingham and ultimately spread…Fueled by the terrible pressure of the transition from handicraft to machinery in the textile trades, the distress caused to those workers dismissed or to those whose wages were reduced due to competition, and the general scarcity pushed the unemployed to desperation. While the Luddites…left people unharmed, they were shot at by the military and ruthlessly suppressed. Harsh legislation and judicial reprisal all by destroyed the Luddite organization, but this fierce confrontation between the owners of the means of production and those whose labor produced the goods gave rise to a new class consciousness. In the next two decades, the Luddite revolts would become a symbolic rallying point for English laborers, who organized the first independent working-class movement….

            Thus chaos in the domestic front is alluded to in the form of a violent snowstorm whirling around the dim sun. Driving rain and huge fallen boulders dramatize the event, while the swirling forces almost transform the picture into one vast whirlpool. These highlight the foreground scene of Carthaginian troops plundering, raping, and killing the Alpine people and of the Alpine horns signaling a reprisal. Hence, the theme of mutiny and internal division follows in the tracks of Hannibal, and reinforces its allusion to national politics. The picture’s subtext points to the self-destructive components of English culture during the Napoleonic wars, with England-Carthage literally invading itself and making the ultimate task of Napoleon a lot easier.”

 Albert Boime, Art in an Age of Bonapartism 1800-1815 (Chicago-London: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 114-15.

 

Snow Storm (exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1812) was the first painting for which Turner included an excerpt from his uncompleted long poem, The Fallacies of Hope:

  “Craft, treachery, and fraud – Salassian force,
  Hung on the fainting rear! Then Plunder seiz’d
  The victor and the captive, -- Seguntum’s spoil,
  Alike became their prey; still the chief advanc’d,
  Look’d on the sun with hope; -- low, broad, and wan;
  While the fierce archer of the downward year
  Stains Italy’s blanch’d barrier with storms.
  In vain each pass, ensanguin’d deep with dead,
  Or rocky fragments, wide destruction roll’d.
  Still on Campania’s fertile plains – he thought,
  But the loud breeze sob’d, ‘Capua’s joys beware!”

Cited in Andrew Wilton, Turner in His Time (London: Thames and Hudson, 1987), p. 95.


Turner placed great importance on the exact location of where his painting hung in Royal Academy exhibitions. Joseph Farington, who was on the RA hanging committee in 1812 noted:

“Turner’s large picture of Hannibal Crossing the Alps was placed over the door of the new room…and it was thought was seen to great advantage. Mr. [Benjamin] West came and concurred in this opinion with [Robert] Smirke, [Nathaniel] Dance, and myself. [Sir Augustus Wall] Calcott came and remarked that Turner had said that if this picture were not placed under the line [i.e. at eye level] he would rather have it back; Calcott also thought it would be better seen if under the line. He went away and we took the picture down and placed it opposite to the door of the entrance, the situation which Calcott mentioned. Here it appeared to the greatest disadvantage,  -- a scene of confusion and injuring the effect of the whole of that part of the arrangement. We therefore determined to replace it which was done.”

The following day

“While we were at dinner Turner came and took a little only having dined early. He asked me ‘What we had done with his pictures?’ I told him we had had much difficulty about his large picture Hannibal Crossing the Alps. He went upstairs and stayed a while and afterwards returned to us with an apparently assumed cheerfulness but soon went away and took [Henry] Howard out of the room, who soon came back and informed us that Turner objected to his picture being placed above the line. Howard assured him it was seen there to better advantage, but he persisted in saying that if it were not to be placed below the line he would take it away; that as he saw us cheerfully seated he would not now mention his intention to us, but would come on Monday morning to have the matter finally determined. “

On Wednesday, Turner approved the new location.

Cited in Andrew Wilton, Turner in His Time (London: Thames and Hudson, 1987), p. 97.

 

Lynn Matteson explains the contemporary political context of Turner’s Snow Storm :

“ [I]n late 1809, a few months before his trip to Franley Hall, a delegation of Tyrolese visited London to petition the British government to subsidize their armed resistance to Napoleon’s invasion of the Tyrolean Alps. Public opinion enthusiastically supported the cause of these mountain heroes….The comparison made between the demise of ancient empires and the future fate of their modern counterparts provided a warning that was commonly cited by writers …Similarly, in moralizing on the historical pattern he saw insidiously and malevolently operating in the political events of the day, Turner continued to employ exemples from history. Hence, he was fascinated with the histories of Carthage and Rome, the great rivals of antiquity and the ancient paradigms of France and Britain. The subject of Hannibal thus became the perfect vehicle for Turner to express his belief in the melancholy connection between the destinies of Carthage and France, Hannibal and Napoleon, and, by interence, of Rome and Britain.”

Lynn R. Matteson, “The Poetics and Politics of Alpine Passage: Turner’s Snowstorm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps,” The Art Bulletin, vol. 62, no. 3 (September 1980): 395-6.


Morton Paley posits more than an historical context for Turner’s Snow Storm :

 “In Hannibal we sense a dimension beyond secular history, and one clue to this is the depiction of the army at the lower right. The soldiers are evidently being addressed by a figure with arms upraised toward the sky – a situation reminiscent of Satan calling up his legions in [John Milton’s] Paradise Lost. The posture of the gesturing figure, presumably meant for Hannibal, resembles that of Satan in representations of this scene by Fuseli and by Sir Thomas Lawrence….Turner does not systematize his view of history into anything like Blake’s Orc cycle, but he does nevertheless represent the historical process as a cyclical one. Beyond this cycle is the abyss, and so the appropriate image for it is vortical – not a circle but a gyre.”

Morton D. Paley, The Apocalyptic Sublime (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 1986), p. 111.


Similar Subjects by Other Artists

 Francisco Goya, Victorious Hannibal Seeing Italy for the First Time from the Alps (Selgas-Fagalde Foundation, Cudillero)

About the Artist

Born: London, 23 April 1775
Died: Chelsea, 19 December 1851
Nationality: English