Art/Museums logo

J. M. W. Turner

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

June 24 to September 21, 2008

The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

October 1, 2007 to January 6, 2008

Dallas Museum of Fine Arts

February 10 to May 18, 2008

"Peace - Burial at Sea"

"Peace - Burial at Sea," oil on canvas, 34 1/4 by 34 1/8 inches, Turner Bequest, Tate

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 and memorable.

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 Francis Bacon.

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 Church.

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 painting.

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 the Tate.

"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 down."

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.

"Snow Storm - Steam Boat off a Harbour's Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water..."

Cat. 136, "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," oil on canvas, 36 by 48 inches, Turner Bequest, Tate, London

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 memorably quipped:

'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...

"Whalers (The Whale Ship"

"Whalers (The Whale Ship)," oil on canvas, 36 1/2 by 48 1/4 inches, 1845, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Catherine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1896

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.

"The Burning of the Hose of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834"

"The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834, oil on canvas 36 1/2 by 48 1/2 inches, Philadelphia Museum of Art, the John Howard McFadden Collection, 1928

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."

"Detal of "The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons..."

Detail of "The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834, oil on canvas 36 1/2 by 48 1/2 inches, Philadelphia Museum of Art, the John Howard McFadden Collection, 1928

The Philadelphia picture is more abstract while the Cleveland painting is more symmetrical.

"Norham Castle, Sunrise"

"Norham Castle, Sunrise,"oil on canvas, 35 3/4 by 47 5/8 inches, Turner Bequest, Tate

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.

"The Lake: Petworth, Sunset; Sample Study"

"The Lake: Petworth, Sunset; Sample Study," oil on canvas, 25 1/2 by 55 1/2 inches

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"

"Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps," oil on canvas, 57 1/2 by 93 1/2, Turner Bequest, Tate, London

"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."

"Falls of the Rhine, Schaffhausen"

Cat. 20, "Fall of the Rhine, Schaffhausen," oil on canvas, 57 by 92 inches, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Bequest of Alice Marian Curtis, and S;pecial Picture Fund

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 Battle of Trafalgar..."

"The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory," oil on canvas, 67 1/4 by 94 inches, Turner Bequest, Tate, London

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.

"The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805"

"The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805," oil on canvas, 102-144 inches National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Hospital Collection

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 billowing clouds.

Detail from "The Battle of Trafalgar"

Detail from "The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805," oil on canvas, 102-144 inches National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Hospital Collection

"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...."

"Fort Vimieux"

"Fort Vimieux," oil on canvas, 28 by 42 inches, Gregory Calimanopulos

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: The Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore"

"Venice: The Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore," oil on canvas, 36 by 48 inches, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Widener Collection, 1942

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.

"Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight"

"Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight," oil on canvas, 36 1/8 by 48 1/8 inches, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Widener Collection, 1942

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."

"Sunrise with Sea Monsters"

"Sunrise with Sea Monsters," oil on canvas, 36 by 48 inches, Turner Bequest, London

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....

"Waves Breaking on a Lee Shore at Margate"

Cat. 133, "Waves Breaking on a Lee Shore at Margate (Study for 'Rockets and Blue Lights')," oil on canvas, 23 1/2 by 37 1/2 inches, Turner Bequest, Tate

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."

Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects

 

Home Page of The City Review