By Carter B. Horsley
Joseph Mallord William Turner
(1775-1851) is probably the greatest artist in history, or, at
the very least, the most "modern" and "abstract"
of all artists in history.
Such sweeping statements, however,
apply only to his later works as his early paintings were nicely
done, representative landscapes that were pleasant but not revolutionary
This large retrospective presents
about 150 works from his entire career and therefore tends to
minimize his greatness by not isolating his true masterpieces
from the rest of his oeuvre. This comment is meant to account
for the disappointment that he was not a genius from birth and
therefore not in the heroic tradition of seemingly "flawless"
artists such as Van Eyck, Botticelli, Durer, Vermeer, Winslow
Homer, Van Gogh, Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso and Anselm Kiefer
whose consistency is overwhelming. This might appear to be minor
quibbling, but when considering art one is psychologically greatly
influenced by reputations and a less than "perfect"
work can jar, besmirch and otherwise ruin an artist's standing
in the pantheon of creativity.
While such list-making is a
childish game, it is one that most good "connoisseurs"
regularly play and it tends to unfortunately denigrate the even
more remarkable achievement of some lesser mortals who are merely
"one-trick ponies," capable of only occasionally producing
a masterpiece, or a "masterly formula," such as Hieronymous
Bosch, Fragonard, De Chirico, Georgia O'Keeffe, Mark Rothko, and
There is a third category of
greatness for those artists who like Turner mature and become
greater as they age or at least have spurts of fabulous inspiration.
Such artists are Titian, Goya, Martin J. Heade, and Frederick
Turner, to be sure, produced
many "pretty" pictures early in his career, but his
swirling, explosive late compositions introduced a new pictorial
language that transcended mere style or subject matter. Cubism,
Fauvism, German Expressionism and Surrealism were spectacular
movements, but they did not shatter the boundaries of conventional
Turner's best works, however,
overwhelm and flood outside the bounds of their frames, engulfing
the viewer in a tsunami of emotion and tumbling perspectives and
windy, palpable clouds of tremendous specificity. They are not
merely colorful abstractions, or quaint and peculiar visions,
but torrents of expression torn free from the crags of an era
or a culture, transformative works that alter our sense of the
possible and the probable.
They simply knock your socks
off with their élan, their color and their painterliness
and predate "Modern Art" by more than a century!
"Peace - Burial at Sea"
is a spectacular oil on canvas that measures 34 1/4 by 34 1/8
inches that was painted in 1842 as a companion piece to "The
Exile and the Rock Limpet," which shows Napoleon in exile
on St. Helena. Both paintings are part of the Turner Bequest at
"Peace - Burial at Sea"
is, according to the catalogue, "an imagined recreation of
the burial off Gilbraltar of Turner's friend of erstwhile rival,
the Scottish painter Sir David Willkie (1785-1841)." "As
elsewhere in his career, Turner seems to have viewed art as a
product of civilisation, and the natural and necessary antidote
to war. Willkie had died on 1 June 1841 during his return journey
from the Middle East and was buried at sea after officials at
the British port refused to accept his body, fearing that he might
have contracted cholera." Some critics, the catalogue noted,
"suggested that the pictures would look just as well upside
The catalogue also notes that
"the bird, scudding over the water in the foreground has
been identified as a duck, or mallord, and has suggested to some
that Turner used this familiar pun on his middle name ("Mallord")
to imply his symbolic presence at the solemn rites."
The painting is simply spectacular
with its black sails, asymmetrical composition, highly degree
of abstraction and superb painterliness.
The second most spectacular
painting in the exhibition is "Snow Storm - Steam Boat off
a Harbour's Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water, and Going by
the Lead. The Author was in this Storm on the Night the Ariel
Left Harwich, an oil on canvas that measures 36 by 38 inches in
the Turner Bequest at the Tate Museum. "At the Royal Academy
in 1842, the painting was widely lampooned. The Athenaeum
'This gentleman has, on former
occasions, chosen to paint with cream, or chocolate, yolk of egg,
or currant jelly - here he uses his whole array of kitchen stuff.
Where the steam-boat is - where the harbour ends - which are the
signals, and which the author in the Ariel ...are matters past
our finding out.'
"But, according to Ruskin,
Turner was most stung by a review that described the painting
as nothing more than 'soapsuds and whitewash.' As this can no
longer be traced, it is possible that Ruskin subsequently invented
the remark himself, to heighten outrage at Turner's treatment
by the press."
The painting, of course, is
a mighty tour de force that encircles and swamps the viewer and
swallows him into its vortex of ferocious destiny...
The catalogue notes that this
painting was created for one of Turner's patrons, Elhanan Bicknell,
whose company refined spermaceti gathered by whaling fleets in
the Pacific. Bicknell returned the painting, however, to the artist
when he wiped its surface and discovered "that the colors
were fugitive," adding that "He assumed this to be watercolour,
but it is also likely that the 'extraordinary aerial effects'
and 'prismatic brightness' mentioned in the reviews had been chiefly
created with the aid of unstable glazes made up of megilps, which
darkened to leaden grays as they dried." The ghostly skies
and churning waters are truly Melvillean in his horrifically frightening
vision, one of Turner's major masterpieces.
Turner painted two versions
of "The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October,
1834," one of which is in the Cleveland Museum of Art, Bequest
of John Severance, 1942, and the other is at the Philadelphia
Museum of Art, the John Howard McFadden Collection, 1928. The
catalogue says that "the two pictures provide totally different
aspects of the fires and it is quite plausible that Turner wished
to explore both of these angles with equal interest."
"The painting now in the
collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art was the first and
was exhibited at the British Institution in February 1935. It
is interesting to note that this first finished composition bears
little relation to any of the watercolour sketches that Turner
enthusiastically executed, perhaps in anticipation of the creating
a larger-scale work. It has been suggested that, instead, the
Philadelphia picture relies heavily on the account published in
The Times on the day following the catastrophe. The viewpoint
is taken from the south bank of the Thames just west of Westminster
Bridge, looking directly north across the river at the Palace
of Westminster. This perspective was evidently considered to be
one of the most powerful viewpoints of the blaze as it was used
in a number of popular prints that followed the event....Turner's
habit of completing this canvas on the walls of the gallery during
Varnishing Days was employed in the case of the Philadelphia picture....The
version of the painting now in the Cleveland Museum shows the
scene from the more distant viewpoint, close to Waterloo Bridge,
and typifies the panoramic perspective that Turner used frequently.
This allowed him to reserve vast areas of the canvas for showing
the magnificent reflection of the flames on the water of the Thames
as well as the surrounding sky, full of drifting smoke and colour.
It is an outstanding example of Turner's masterful ability to
synthesise the effects of light, air and water."
The Philadelphia picture is
more abstract while the Cleveland painting is more symmetrical.
The catalogue notes that "it
was only in 1906 that Norham Castle [Sunrise] and the other
pictures in the Turner Bequest that are part of the series were
first shown, causing one critic to marvel: 'We have never seen
Turner before!' Norham was instantly identified as an unknown
masterpiece and attracted much attention from a patriotic press
that wanted to claim Turner as a precursor of Impressionism. The
Spectator captured this mood with its awestruck claim that
'Turner in his latest development, more than any artist who had
gone before him, painted not so much the objects he saw as the
light which played around them.,"
Turner first visited the castle
on the Scottish border in 1797 nearly 50 years before executing
this painting and produced six finished watercolors of it throughout
his career. It is the quintessential impressionist picture, a
work of great misty yet very colorful beauty.
In 1827, Turner spent time
with Lord Egremont, one of his most important patrons, at Petworth,
his home in Sussex. The catalogue notes that in his study for
a painting of the lake at Petworth, Turner's "use of oils
gained from the experimental work he was undertaking in watercolors
during the 1820s. The finished painting is much more detailed
but the study is a ravishing impressionistic masterpiece.
"Snow Storm: Hannibal
and his Army Crossing the Alps"is one of the artist's "most
powerful visions of an awe-inspiring setting and the overwhelm
power of the natural fores of wind and water," according
to the catalogue, which added that "The result is an image
that combines the emotional impact of the sublime landscape with
the moral and intellectual concerns of history painting. By means
of this linkage, Turner increasingly made history itself a source
of the sublime....Turner...makes his painting in large part a
moral lesson, warning against the enervating effects of luxury.
In this way he achieves precisely the goal of history painting
as described by civic humanist writers of the previous century,
such as Lord Shaftesbury and Sir Joshua Reynolds....There is also
specific reference to contemporary history in Hannibal, as Bonaparte
had been depicted in the form of a modern Hannibal in Napoleon
Crossing the St. Bernard Pass (1800) by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825),
which Turner had seen during his 1802 visit to Paris. Painted
in the midst of war with France, just as Napoleon was advancing
n Russia, Turner's work very probably also referred to Napoleon's
recent incursion into the Tryolean Alps."
The catalogue provides the
following commentary about "Fall of the Rhine, Schaffhausen,"
a 57-by-92-inch oil on canvas in the collection of the Museum
of Fine Arts in Boston:
"First exhibited at the
Royal Academy in 1806, this picture speaks directly to both the
opportunities and risks of Turner's ambitious goals of raising
landscape, and his own reputation, to the highest level of artistic
achievement. The continental subject, studied during his 1802
travels, would have been intended to appeal to wealthy, well-traveled
buyers, and it was, in fact, bought by Sir John Fleming Leicester
(1762-1827(, a leading patron of contemporary British art, who
had made the Grand Tour of Europe in 1785-6....In a radical compositional
move, Turner makes the enormous indistinct area of the falls dominate
the centre of the canvas. This was a formal device that Turner
would use often in these years, and he must have been well aware
that for many thinkers indistinctness and uncertainty were a primary
source of the sublime....Here, using broad strokes of the palette
knife, Turner simultaneously registers both the thundering force
of the water and its ephemeral quality as it rises up in mist
to join with the air. As he would do throughout his career, however,
Turner joins this vision of nature with complementary narrative
elements. In the foreground the figures, who demonstrate Tuner's
attention to local details of class and character, enact the terror
of the subject as a mother rushes to her child who is endangered
by the rearing horses to their left."
The catalogue provides the
following commentary about the very large and impressive "The
Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen From the Mizen Starboard Shrouds
of the Victory":
"Nelson's victory at the
Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805 ensured Britain's dominance
of the seas for the remainder of the Napoleonic Wars, and secured
the admiral's lasting status as a British military hero. Nelson
had insisted on personally leading the British fleet headlong
into the enemy's broadside battery, and during the course of the
ensuing firefight was hit by a sniper while conspicuously standing
on the deck of his flagship Victory. Here, Turner represents
the moment of the fatal shot, with Nelson lying left of centre;
a compositional diagonal towards the top right of the canvas leads
to the smoking gun a French marksman, positioned high in the rigging
of his ship, the Redoutable. After the battle the Victory
retuned to England carrying the body of Nelson and was anchored
off the southern coast at Sheerness on 22 December 1805. Turner
went to sketch the ship as she entered the River Medway, and subsequently
made a series of detailed studies on board. The sea is barely
visible in his finished composition, where a forest of masts and
the smoke of battle generate a claustrophobic and congested atmosphere
quite unlike any previous pictures of naval engagements."
Turner's composition is remarkable
for all the detail that disappears in the sweep of sails and battle.
At 67 1/4 by 94 inches, this oil on canvas is intimidating large
and overwhelming and awesome.
Turner returned to subject
of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1823 when he was commissioned by
George IV to paint the battle "to hang in St. James's Palace
as a pendant to Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg's The Glorious
First of June, 1794," which represents Lord Howe's victory
in first first sea battle of the French Revolutionary War. Compositionally,
Turner mirrors the format employed by de Loutherbourg - a friend
and influence from his early years - of a narrow strip of foreground
sea where men desperately board lifeboats, with the main action
monumentally occupying the middle ground against a backdrop of
"The commission for The
Battle of Trafalgar was in large part due to the advocacy of Sir
Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), who maintained a warm regard for
Turner and his works. The paintings hung in the palace, however,
for only five years. From its first arrival at St. James's, The
Battle of Trafalgar had attracted particular controversy.
During the eleven days Turner spent finishing the work in situ
he was constantly advised of factual inaccuracies by naval men.
His friend Jones, who worked alongside him on his own pictures,
recalled how during this time Turner 'altered the rigging to suit
the fancy of each seaman, and did it with the greatest good humour.'
Especially irksome to these mariners was Turner's compression
of several known instances into a single moment in time...."
Beached anchors appear in some
of Turner's work like "Fort Vimieux," an 1845 oil on
canvas that measures 28 by 42 inches. It is a bold composition
in which a fiery sunset is just to the right of a beached three-masted
ship. The overall tone of the sky matches that of the sandy beach
and the clouds are light and no competition for the incandescent
sun. What makes the picture fascinating is that the sky is muted,
not pink and rosy and red from such a vibrant sunset. The merging
of air and water is an abstraction that is highlighted by the
tilted masts and the slight curve upward of a prong of the anchor
that arouses the curiosity of a shore bird. The world is full
of wondrous and strange things, methinks....
Venice was a great subject
for Turner who depicted it in "glorious Technicolor."
"Venice: The Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore" in the
Widener Collection at the National Gallery of Art in Washington,
D.C., is a good example even if it is a bit calm by the pryotechnical
standards Turner usually called upon for his Venetian skies. It
should be noted that Turner inspired many American artists such
as Thomas Moran, who made many similar Venetian scenes when he
wasn't depicting the Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon in the United
States, and James Hamilton.
Another Turner in the Widener
Collection is in the exhibition, "Keelmen Heaving in Coals
by Moonlight," an oil on canvas that measures 36 1/8 by 48
1/8 inches. The catalogue notes that the scene is in Newcastle
on the River Tyne, the center of England's coal trade. "Contemporary
reviewers of Keelmen," the catalogue observed, "were
struck by the extraordinary lighting, which The Times described
as 'neither night nor day."
The catalogue maintains that
ever since "Sunrise with Sea Monsters" went on display
"for the first time in 1906 it has haunted and intrigued
viewers." "The potently mysterious title was actually
invented by curators, and initially only specified a single monster.
Regrettably, however, it is unlikely that we are seeing any monsters
at all, though it is a pity to challenge this now-established
orthodoxy. It is all a matter of scale. for the monsters are actually
much smaller than they initially appear, and only slightly larger
than the red-and-white float and netting on the left. Admittedly
the jumble of eyes, mouths and a tail seem at first unintelligible,
like the terrifying man-beast in Shakespeare's Tempest.
But we are probably only looking at a couple of fish, floundering
with their mouths open in the shallows, like the ugly gurnards
or John Dories that Turner like to sketch."
It is not one of Turner's masterpieces,
although perhaps it might inspire a Cy Twombly. Is Turner really
wasting so much canvas to portray his favorite gurnard for the
edification for squeamish ladies, or is he setting the ground
work for James Ensor's masks and a diatribe against cosmetics,
or is it simply an unfinished work inspired by aliens?
Whatever...It is audaciously
minimal, modern and monstrous and it doesn't get much better than
that on cold and windy nights....
Two of Turner's supreme masterpieces
- "Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying - Typhon
Coming on," and "Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand)
to Warn Steam Boats of Shoal Water" - are not in the exhibition,
but "Waves Breaking on a Lee Shore at Margate" is a
study for the latter work, albeit one that is nowhere near as
brilliant and colorful. The catalogue observed that by the 1830s,
Turner became "a regular visitor to the town of Margate,
at the easternmost tip of the Kent coast" where "he
enjoyed there a relaxed anonymity that enabled him to slough off
the burden of his London persona as an artistic celebrity. The
town's exposed geographical position also provided an ever-unfolding
cyclorama of spectacular skies, bathing its headland in watery
light throughout the day. Just as extraordinary were the sunsets
at Margate, which in Turner's time would have been intensified
by the polluted haze swept down river from London. Some of these
memorable effects can be found in the watercolour sketches and
bathes of oil studies that he painted during his trips, which
were not considered fit to be publicly displayed until the end
of the nineteenth century."