William McTaggart

The Storm

William McTaggart’s energetic brush work and bold colour convey the power of the thunderous sky, lashing wind and turbulent sea. The figures are fully integrated into the landscape which was worked up in McTaggart’s studio, but based on a smaller version painted out of doors at Carradale in Kintyre in 1883. Andrew Carnegie, the industrialist and philanthropist, bought the painting which was later presented to the gallery by his widow.

Man’s vulnerability and courageous struggle in relation to natural forces are suggested through the tiny fishing vessel at sea and the launching off a rescue boat from the shore. Anxious families wait in the foreground.

William McTaggart was the most significant Scottish landscape painter in the later 19th century. The son of a crofting farmer, he was brought up on the Kintyre peninsula and his love of the sea stemmed from his childhood on this remote part off the west coast of Scotland. In 1852 he became a pupil of Robert Scott Lauder at the Trustees Academy in Edinburgh. He enjoyed early success with his portraiture and with his rather sentimental figure subjects painted in a conventional manner. From about the 1880s, however, land and seascapes began to dominate his work and his style became increasingly sketchy and unfinished. In his later pictures, his brightly painted skies and seas seem to dissolve into turbulent passages of flickering colour and rough texture in a manner that often perturbed contemporary critics and put off potential buyers. His looser technique is sometimes, probably incorrectly, linked to the influence of French Impressionism; his highly individual and emotional approach to nature has much more in common with the English painter John Constable, whose work he is known to have studied and admired.

Throughout his career McTaggart often returned to his home region off Kintyre for painting trips in the summer months. He was devoted to painting out of doors and sometimes completed even larger canvases outside. This monumental picture, however, was made in his studio and is a reprise of a smaller work completed in 1883 while he was staying at Carradale, a village on the east side of the Kintyre peninsula. Against the backdrop of an angry dark sky, the headland and sea are brightly lit by a flash of sunlight coming through the clouds. The energetic brushwork and vivid colour suggest the full drama of a powerful storm that threatens to overwhelm the vulnerable fishing village in the middle distance. In the swirling waves at the right we can just make out a tiny fishing boat, foundering close to the rocks. On the shore nearby, figures scramble to launch a rescue craft while in the foreground we can make out clusters of anxious spectators. It is not clear whether McTaggart actually witnessed such a scene, and it may well be a compilation of the real and the imagined. It is, however, a very powerful expression of his attachment to this coastal region and his obvious sympathy for the perilous existence of its fishing communities.

This is arguably McTaggart’s masterpiece and is certainly among the grandest paintings of his later career. In 1901 it was the centrepiece of an exhibition that toured to Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee as part of an effort to raise funds for his eldest son’s failing engineering business. The Storm was purchased by the American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie whose collection of Scottish art decorated his castle at Skibo in Sutherland. In 1935 Carnegie’s widow presented the painting to the Scottish National Gallery to mark the dual centenary of the birth of the artist and her late husband.

Key Facts

Date: 1890

Location: Scottish National Gallery, The Mound, Edinburgh EH2 2EL

Website: Scottish National Gallery

The Storm