Published: November 12, 2007
One of the great landscape painters of all time, and arguably Great Britain’s finest artist, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775‱851) depicted a wide range of subjects in his prolific career, ranging from seascapes, topographical views and mythology to historical events, modern life and images from his imagination. His paintings and watercolors, which elevated the standing of landscape art to unprecedented levels, are among the most familiar and most admired works in art history.
In the course of his career, he created more than 20,000 oil paintings, watercolors and drawings. While helping to define the romantic movement, his renderings of the subtle effects of light and atmosphere on the shape and color of things summed up notions of the sublime. His enormous talent, technical brilliance and stylistic innovations influenced many artists who followed, including the Impressionists.
His achievements are celebrated in the exhibition “J.M.W. Turner,” on view at the National Gallery of Art through January 6. The show, comprising nearly 150 paintings and watercolors, was organized by a curatorial team headed by Ian Worrell of Tate Britain that included the National Gallery’s Franklin Kelly, the Dallas Museum of Art’s Dorothy Kosinski and The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Gary Tinterow.
Raised in the heart of London, the son of a barber and wigmaker, Turner had little formal education, but showed an early talent for watercolor drawings. Enrolled at the age of 14 at the Royal Academy of Arts, where he was schooled in the fundamentals of art, he began submitting watercolors to the Royal Academy’s exhibitions in his late teens.
Turner followed a lifelong pattern of summer touring, initially exploring areas in England, Scotland and Wales that offered scenic sites. “The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking Toward the East Window,” a 1794 watercolor, emphasized the sad grandeur of the old, overgrown Gothic ruins of the Welsh site. It reflects Turner’s embrace of the picturesque aesthetic that stressed qualities of roughness and decay.
Determined to gain recognition as a serious, prominent artist, he took up oil painting and followed the advice of Royal Academy president Sir Joshua Reynolds by studying such Old Masters as Rembrandt, Claude Lorrain and Nicholas Poussin. Turner’s first oil to be exhibited at the Royal Academy, in 1796, “Fisherman at Sea,” growing out of the tradition of Seventeenth Century Dutch marine paintings, documents the liveliness and dramatic moonlit effects he achieved in the new medium †at age 21.
Eventually, Turner employed a more energetic style, geared to his era’s sense of awe in the face of untamed nature †The Sublime, as it was called. “The Shipwreck,” 1805, demonstrates man’s vulnerability to the power of nature as survivors cling to small, overloaded boats, seemingly at the mercy of battering waves.
The dramatic lighting, roiling white caps, storm-darkened sky and wind-swept ships in the beautifully painted “The Confluence of the Thames and the Medway,” 1805, offers Turner’s stirring reminder of Britain’s dominion over the seas.
Turner’s initial reputation, based largely on vivid seascapes, led to his election at age 26 as the youngest member ever admitted to the Royal Academy. Often described as a “mean-looking little man,” he put people off with his gruff manner and unbridled ambition. “In the genteel circles of Regency London,” says Worrell, “his forthright and professional approach to the business of art was&⁰erceived as decidedly vulgar.” Turner never married and led a semireclusive existence.
Several early oil masterpieces grew out of frequent travels on the continent, especially in the Swiss Alps. His ability to convey the dramatic confluence of mountainous chasms, churning waters and infinitesimal humanity is epitomized by “The Devil’s Bridge, St Gotthard,” circa 1803‱804. Here, a French soldier bravely crosses a flimsy little span over an awesome chasm, dwarfed by the vertical masses of rock all around him.
The vast proportions, dramatic vistas and historic legacy of the Alps inspired one of Turner’s most ambitious and critically successful early oils, “Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps,” 1812. Depicting fierce Third Century BC combat between invading Carthaginians and local tribesmen amidst the swirling mists of an alpine storm, it conveys both the immediacy of battle and, in the distance, the bright promise of Italy.
While working as a professor of perspective at the Royal Academy, starting in 1807, Turner sought to promote landscape painting as the equal of history painting. Around 1805 he created a series of evocative views of the Thames River, such as “The Thames Near Walton Bridges” and “Willows beside a Stream,” an unfinished oil that seems to presage his later, softer style.
“London,” 1809, a sweeping panorama of the burgeoning city painted from the bucolic, deer-infested hills of Greenwich Park, shows Saint Paul’s Cathedral on the horizon, partly obscured by coal-dust pollution, while a shaft of sunlight illuminates the elegant architecture of the Royal Naval Hospital in the middle ground.
“The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire,” 1817, depicts defeated survivors gathered amidst magnificent harbor architecture as ships carry the city’s young men to death or slavery in Rome.
Thomas Cole, the British-born founder of the Hudson River School of painting, visited Turner’s studio and although ambivalent about the Englishman’s work, reflected his influence in “The Consummation of Empire” from “The Course of Empire” series and “The Architect’s Dream.” Other notable Americans linked by Kelly to Turner include Frederic Church, George Inness, Thomas Moran and Alfred Pinkham Ryder.
Gripped by Britain’s war with France during the first two decades of his career, Turner depicted the defeat of the French fleet at Trafalgar in “The Battle of Trafalgar as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory ,” 1806, reworked 1808. His view shows Lord Horatio Nelson, shot by a sniper, dying on the deck of his ship.
Commissioned by King George IV, Turner returned to the subject 18 years later with his largest canvas †102 by 144 inches †”The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805,” 1823‱824, which effectively conveys the chaos and human toll of the intense fight. As Nelson’s flagship Victory , looming over the center, engages in close-quarters combat with the French, drowning and dying seamen struggle to survive amidst the confusion.
Following a visit to the battlefield the year before, Turner painted “The Field of Waterloo” in 1818, a 58-by-94-inch canvas. It focuses on the carnage of war as women search for their menfolk by torchlight among the mass of English and French bodies. In contrast to the celebratory tone of many contemporary paintings, Turner illuminated the human cost of war by portraying suffering on both sides.
Throughout his career, Turner created a dazzling array of watercolors based on rapid outdoor sketches that were turned into finished works in his studio. Starting in the 1820s, his palette became brighter, particularly with the use of new gradations of yellow that he employed to depict nuances of light, and his images tended to be less precise.
With his watercolors he portrayed the antiquities of Scotland; the rivers of England (a standout is a moonlit industrial scene, “Shields, on the River Tyne,” 1823); British ports; London and landscapes in Britain (notably, a nostalgic sunset view of crumbling “Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire,” circa 1830) and Wales.
Turner’s spectacular paintings and watercolors of Europe’s most romantic city, shimmering, atmospheric evocations of the bustling canals and venerable marble buildings of Venice, are among the crowing achievements of his career. The extent to which he was at one with the floating city, so well-suited to his vibrant colors, renderings of effulgent light, evocative reflections in waterways and depictions of marble buildings and colorful vessels, is apparent in such oil paintings as “Venice: The Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore,” 1834, and “Venice, from the Port of Madonna della Salute,” 1835.
Watercolors like “Venice: The Grand Canal, with Santa Maria della Salute, from near the Hotel Europa,” 1840, and paintings emanating from his last visit to Venice in 1840, such as “The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of the Europa,” 1842, and “Approach to Venice,” 1844, showcase Turner’s late predilection for vaporous evocations of the city’s vistas.
At the height of his powers, Turner applied his profound interest in literature and history to works like “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus †Homer’s Odyssey,” 1829. This vague symphony in brilliant light and crimson and yellow colors startled admirers and critics alike. While the artist’s great champion John Ruskin called it “the central picture of Turner’s career,” one newspaper critic said his coloring had “run mad&ll the most glaring tints&ontend for mastery of the canvas, with the vehement contrasts of a kaleidoscope or Persian carpet.”
Turner’s keen interest in contemporary events led to a series of eyewitness sketches, watercolors and paintings recording the devastating 1834 fire that demolished the Eleventh Century parliament buildings in London. Highlights of the gallery devoted to a dozen of these images are two oils, painted in 1835, “The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons,” followed by versions of the date, October 16, 1834. Pulsing with soaring red flames, orange and yellow swatches and compelling reflections in the Thames, they convey the heat and destructive fury of a conflagration that captivated the nation.
Turner also chronicled England’s transition from an agrarian to an industrial society in paintings such as “Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight,” 1835. Here, under ethereal light, he depicted laborers loading coal from small boats onto larger ships in Newcastle, the hub of British coal production. With fiery torches also illuminating active factories on shore, “Keelmen” underscored England’s great maritime and industrial power.
Turner continued to create seascapes, most often utilizing a muted palette of cool blues, greens and gray, only occasionally enlivened by startling splashes of livelier colors. Depictions of shipwrecks, whalers at work on stormy waters and, generally, the perils of life at sea reflect the artist’s respect for the courage of seafaring men and for the power of the ocean.
Turner’s late works are characterized by bold experiments with color and light, expressive brushwork, increasingly indistinct images and, occasionally, vortexes of air, clouds, mist and water swirling around central subjects. In “Peace †Burial at Sea,” 1842, his moving tribute to his friend, fellow painter Sir David Wilkie, who was buried at sea off Gibraltar, Turner employed a palette of darkened colors, punctuated by the brightly lit section of the deck where the burial ceremony was taking place.
During visits to Switzerland he created the culminating watercolors of his long career, including blurry, vaporous views of Lake Como, Lake Lucerne and Lake Zug.
When he died in 1851, Turner left a group of unfinished paintings in his studio, including two radiant, hazy, atmospheric canvases, characterized by near-dissolution of forms, “Europa and the Bull” and “Norham Castle, Sunrise,” both circa 1845.
At his death, Turner bequeathed to the British nation (now housed at Tate Britain) nearly 100 finished paintings, along with countless watercolors, studies and sketchbooks. The Turner bequest forms the nucleus of this rewarding exhibition. It more than solidifies Turner’s standing as the greatest of British artists and one of the all-time great painters of world.
After closing in Washington, the exhibition travels to the Dallas Museum of Art (February 10⁍ay 18) and The Metropolitan Museum of Art (June 24⁓eptember 21).
The 272-page, exhibition catalog contains essays by Warrell and Kelly and chapters by younger scholars offering new insights into Turner’s oeuvre. Published by Tate Enterprises Ltd, it sells for $55, hardcover, and $45, softcover.
The National Gallery of Art is on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets and Constitution Avenue NW. For information, 202-737-4215 or www.nga.gov .
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