Published: February 17, 2004
The sublime, floating city of Venice, described by Michelangelo as a work of art in itself, has inspired an endless stream of artists throughout the centuries. Each has attempted to capture its beauty in his own way, from Canaletto in the Eighteenth Century to Claude Monet and others in the modern era. Yet few have found such a true echo of their own sensibilities in the Venetian scene as British painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) during his more than 20 years of sojourns beginning in 1819.
“Turner and Venice,” the first exhibition ever devoted to Joseph Mallord William Turner’s celebrated views of Venice, currently on view at the Kimbell Art Museum and having recently concluded a run at Tate Britain, London, is the second of only two venues and the only US museum where the exhibition will be seen. The showing at the Kimbell is the first Turner exhibition of such scale and importance to be seen in the United States since 1966. It is on view through May 30.
Turner, one of the greatest landscape and seascape painters of the Romantic era, made his name in the early 1790s as a topographical watercolorist. He made his debut as a painter in oils at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1796, and was elected a Royal Academian in 1802. A staunch supporter of the Royal Academy throughout his career, from 1812 he showed some of his paintings at the Royal Academy exhibitions with lines from his own poem “Fallacies of Hope.”
“Turner and Venice” was organized by Tate Britain, and was curated at the Tate by Ian Warrell, collections curator of Tate Britain.
Works in the exhibition span the 20 years between Turner’s first visit in 1819 and his last in 1840. His many paintings, watercolors and drawings of the city form one of the richest themes in his mature work, a testament to one of the most compelling encounters of artist and place in the history of art.
“Turner’s deep visual and emotional engagement with Europe’s most famously romantic city resulted in some of the greatest masterpieces of the Nineteenth Century,” commented Timothy Potts, director of the Kimbell Art Museum. “‘Turner and Venice,’ the first exhibition to bring these works together, is one of those rare exhibitions that is both a major art-historical event and a ravishing visual experience.”
That this is the first exhibition to focus on Turner’s trips to Venice is a remarkable fact, considering both the crucial importance of the city in Turner’s work and the sustained popularity of his Venetian views since they were first exhibited at the Royal Academy in his own lifetime. Even within a career that was remarkable for its successes and innovations, Turner’s images of Venice were quickly recognized by their first viewers as some of his most magical works. The use of vibrant color, which was generally a problem for his contemporaries, seemed in these paintings to be absolutely at one with the subject matter.
“Turner was the most individual and visionary genius of European painting of his age,” stated Potts. “His paintings – full of vibrant color, expressive brushwork and Romantic spirit – were a revelation to his contemporaries, and pointed the way to many later developments in modern art. He was an inspiration to the Impressionists, who shared his infatuation with the elemental qualities of light and color, air and water. Like the Impressionists, Turner has held his freshness and appeal throughout the modern period. In the United States, he was admired particularly by the Abstract Expressionists, who felt a natural kinship with his almost abstract images of scintillating color and light,” said the director.
The exhibition comprises approximately 30 oils and 130 works on paper. At its core is a large group of works from the spectacular riches of the Turner bequest at Tate Britain, London. These have been brought together, in many cases for the first time since the artist’s own day, with closely related works from other collections across the world. Many of these works have not been on exhibition in recent years, and some of the watercolors will be displayed for the first time, including several of the Romantic and mysterious studies Turner painted of Venice by moonlight. Among other highlights of the exhibition is the chance to see pairs of pictures that were conceived as pendants, but which have been separated since they were sold, shortly after being completed. “The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of the Europa” from the Tate, for instance, will be reunited with a view of the Venetian cemetery island, “The Campo Santo,” from the Toledo Museum of Art.
In the words of the great critic and artist John Ruskin, Venice was “the Paradise of cities.” It was both unforgettably beautiful and redolent of historical and artistic associations. For some, the remains of its glorious past served only to heighten the sense of decay and melancholy about its present state. Seeming to hover and dissolve between water and air, the city’s appearance lent itself readily to the technical experimentation of Turner’s later career — when he developed the free, sometimes near-abstract style for which he is admired today and whose lack of “finish” attracted much controversy in his own time. “Turner and Venice” will provide an opportunity to see Venice more completely through the eyes of this great “painter of light” than ever before, showing the full range of his responses to its many famous sights, and the development of his vision of the city over three decades.
The exhibition provides a context for Turner’s Venetian work by showing it alongside Venetian scenes by contemporaries such as Richard Parkes Bonington, Clarkson Stanfield, Samuel Prout and Ruskin. The influence of Titian and Tintoretto will also be explored, as well as that of Canaletto, the most admired of all cityscape painters at the outset of Turner’s career. Turner’s interest in literary evocations of Venice, notably those of Shakespeare and Lord Byron, also shaped and defined his reactions, and are examined in the exhibition.
During the research for “Turner and Venice,” two oil paintings previously thought to be views of the Venetian lagoon have been reidentified, according to Warrell. “The more likely location for the two views is much closer to home — Portsmouth in Hampshire,” stated the Tate curator in the catalog to the exhibition. As a result, the work formerly listed as “Festive Lagoon Scene, Venice,” circa 1840-45, is now renamed “The Arrival of Louis-Philippe at Portsmouth 8 October 1844,” and “Procession of Boats with Distant Smoke, Venice,” circa 1845, is now retitled “The Disembarkation of Louis-Philippe at Portsmouth, 8 October 1844.” The two paintings are still included in the exhibition.
Tate, with the help of BT and the New Opportunities Fund, has created the first comprehensive online catalog of the work of J.M.W. Turner. During their yearlong process, a number of drawings thought to be lost have been traced and are included in the website “Turner Worldwide.”
“This is an extremely important and long-awaited resource, which is invaluable for Turner scholars and enthusiasts,” stated Warrell. More than 100 public and private collections around the world are already involved and have given Tate permission to illustrate their works on Turner Worldwide, including some 50 galleries. This includes hitherto hidden works in regional collections, which are rarely exhibited or not allowed to travel. Initially half the catalog has been illustrated through images provided by the owners, and it is expected that the proportion of illustrations will grow over time. Information contained in the catalog will continue to grow as more works and images become available through further external partnerships, and Tate is still pursuing another 400 works untraced for decades, details of which can be found on the site www.tate.org.uk/turnerww.
A series of lectures will take place at the Kimbell Art Museum with “Turner on Varnishing Day: A Look at the Artist’s Unorthodox Painting Technique,” presented on February 25 at 12:30 pm by Claire Barry, chief conservator at the Kimbell. On March 24, Patricia Junker, curator of paintings and sculpture at the Amon Carter, will present “Turneresque Painting in Nineteenth Century America: The Art of Sanford Robinson Gifford.” On May 14, Anne Helmreich, associate professor of art history at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, will present an evening lecture titled “J.M.W. Turner’s Legacy: The Next Generations.”
The book Turner and Venice, edited by Ian Warrell, published by Tate Publishing Ltd, is available through Abrams for $50. In soft-bound form, it features 260 illustrations, 230 in color. The Kimbell Art Museum is at 3333 Camp Bowie Boulevard. For information, 817-332-8451 or www.kimbellart.org.
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