The Beauty of trains, one inspiration for the Romanticism of JMW Turner.
The painting depicts an early locomotive of the Great Western Railway crossing the River Thames on Brunel's recently completed Maidenhead Railway Bridge.The painting is also credited for allowing a glimpse of the Romantic strife within Turner and his contemporaries over the issue of the technological advancement during the Industrial Revolution .
Here's a review of the current show of his work at the National Gallery in Washington:
At a transitional moment in British painting, JMW Turner was a force of evolution, writes Kriston Capps
Wednesday November 14, 2007
The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834 (1835) by Joseph Mallord William Turner is on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Image: McClatchy
Among painters, Benjamin West - the painter of epic representation and then-president of the Royal Academy - was perhaps the only artist who measured up to Turner's talent, even in those years of his youth. John Constable, who would become the other looming figure in landscape painting, was an outsider. As Turner achieved prominence, Constable has some success in France but couldn't sell his work at home.
Even the earliest of Turner's 146 oil works on display exhibits the remarkable fundamentals that he would build on and transform - substantially - over time. Fisherman at Sea, the first oil painting Turner showed at the Royal Academy (in 1796, following several years' worth of watercolour works), features elements that would dominate his later studies on the sublime. The full, featureless moon would be repeated again and again across all the modes of his paintings. The wan orb - this time, the sun - hanging low among the rising range of mountains and swoosh of furious weather in Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (1812) represents stability in the face of nature and permanence through tumultuous history. On the other hand, the sulfurous sun in Calais Sands, Low Water, Poissards Collecting Bait (1830) seems to vaporise the ocean where it touches down in a blistering sunset. The sun's fierce fire is juxtaposed against the frail, ghost crab-coloured fishwives searching for grub in the low tide.
A one-stop example of Turner's scope in subject matter comes in the Liber Studiorum, a series he published from 1807 to 1819. Following the example of mezzotints published after Claude Lorrain's 1777 Liber Veritatis, Turner's published engravings offered his early treatise on the subject of landscape painting. He organised his prints by category: architectural, historical, marine, mountainous, pastoral and one final umbrella, "E.P.", which was a category of his own invention (meaning, perhaps, epic pastoral or elegiac pastoral).
The autumnal range of the sepia tints for the Liber Studiorum prints seems narrow and out of turn compared with his painted landscapes. But in historical context, these were a brilliant and successful business innovation. The prints were works that the market of the day would eagerly bear - Turner's bread and butter. In the context of the show, these distinguish this retrospective from both recent Turner exhibits and recent Turner scholarship. A 1966 exhibit of 100 watercolours and oils that visited the Museum of Modern Art - not the Met - enrolled Turner in the ever-expanding chronicle of 19th-century painters whose work would prefigure the advent of Modernism.
That MoMA exhibit focused in particular on Turner's late and unfinished works for obvious reasons: his control of the brush was looser, his interest in atmospherics, keener. The late stuff just looks modern. The comprehensive retrospective at the National Gallery does not necessarily contradict the conclusions one can draw from Turner's late period but rather casts them in historical and painterly context.
The Turner retrospective compares with another recent show at the National Gallery of Art: that of his less fortunate contemporary, John Constable. Constable plays the straight man to Turner's comic. The former painted the everyday near his home in Dedham Vale, while Turner would nurse an image using his imagination to suit his needs - not merely in his epic or historical painting but in his land- and seascapes as well. Even the signature spackle of paint that Constable would apply to his canvas surface to evoke light seems to find a parallel better in Turner's work: the mottle of reds and oranges he uses to evoke fire, sky and blood. Or subjects even more metaphysical, as in Death on a Pale Horse (1825-35).
The show does not hide Turner's warts. The single Turner commission to enter into the Royal Collection, Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805, assigned by King George IV, is a miasma of academic attitudes toward naval painting, heroism and realism. For the piece, Turner incorporated a host of happenings from the 1805 battle, the most important naval conflict of the Napoleonic Wars. Trafalgar was a pyrrhic victory for Lord Howe, who won the day but lost the life of the admiral and beloved hero, Horatio Nelson; this was a fact not lost on Turner as naval figures hovered over him, pointing out errors and suggesting tweaks as he finished the piece. His better work on the subject came years earlier: The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory (1808), in which Turner did not hold to the prevailing style that dominates the royal commission, that is, a single, illuminated plane of action. The chaos of the earlier work comes closer to evoking battle itself - only the plumes of smoke are missing among the towering masts and feathered sails.
Another battle would have an enormous impact on Turner's career: Waterloo. With the end of hostilities in Europe, the continent was opened up to Turner, and from 1815, he traveled widely on sketching tours. The most productive of these trips took Turner to the Roman Campagna, lands painted by his predecessor Claude Lorrain, the master whose name loomed over landscape painting. Regulus, Calais Sands and Fort Vimieux, all masterpieces, were painted following trips through Italy. Intriguingly, Turner's romantic works, painted during numerous trips to Italy from 1819 through the early 1830s, couldn't find an audience; he supported this work by producing illustrations for travel books. Truly, some of these romantic works are saccharine. For Rome: The Forum with a Rainbow, Turner added lush vegetation as well as a rainbow to convey his feelings for the capital.
Turner often would nurse an image to fit his needs, altering elements of a landscape's configuration or a battle's happening to flatter the composition and subject. But in the face of catastrophe, he adhered to a more journalistic standard about painting the scene he saw. In 1834, Turner witnessed the massive fire that consumed the Palace of Westminster. It was a disaster of unprecedented proportion, and it's evident that Turner, as well as other Royal Academy artists and students, recognised the conflagration as the study of a lifetime.
It's doubtful that Turner painted a series of vivid watercolours en plein air; scholarly consensus suggests that these works were finished later after quick sketches. But Turner did, in fact, witness the fire from both sides of the Thames and, according to scholar Sarah Taft, "he may also have boarded a boat for part of that evening". The watercolours are a testament to the way that Turner perceived the landscape: Each painting depicts an evocative and fleeting glance at the inferno. Turner's summary statement would come shortly after the fire, in the form of two oil paintings, each titled The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons October 16, 1834. For these, Turner turned to the perspectives of contemporary press accounts, rather than his own watercolours-suggesting that Turner hoped to dovetail his own painting with a political/social account of the disaster.
Contemporaries describe a collapse in Turner's health in 1845, characterised by sudden cognitive failure, after years of gradual physical decline. Turner was at this time the oldest Royal Academician (in fact, the acting president), and he had exhibited work at the Royal Academy every year for more than 20 years; he continued to do so until 1848. The novelist Wilkie Collins described Turner's degeneration: "There he sat, a shabby Bacchus, nodding like a Mandarin at his picture, which he, with a pendulum motion, now touched with his brush and now receded from. Yet, in spite of sherry, precarious seat and old age, he went on shaping some wonderful dream of colour".
That would be a relatively generous take. Turner biographer Philip Hamerton describes the popular reaction to the 1842 seascape, Snowstorm - 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. The painting, Hamerton remarks, "afforded the critics a precarious opportunity for the exercise of their art," noting that it was decried as "soapsuds and whitewash". It is lost to history who in fact coined that notorious phrase - it might well have been John Ruskin, a critic who supported Turner, remarking on or imitating the viewers who denounced Snowstorm.
The painting dares the viewer to evaluate Turner's late body in Modernist terms. On its face Snowstorm is roughly abstract: a painting that does not depict a specific calamity but rather viscerally relays the experience of weathering the maelstrom. On this point - the specific event in question - Turner offers only misdirection. The elaborate title does not in fact say that "the author" was aboard the Ariel during the tempest in question - nor is it clear that the ship is necessarily the Ariel, a subject of debate among maritime and Turner scholars. Turner is through and through the unreliable narrator. According to Ruskin, the painter told one gallery-goer that he asked sailors to bind him to a ship's mast so that he could observe firsthand the brunt of the storm. The painter certainly knew the mythological root of his own tale, considering his 1829 meditation, Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus - Homer's Odyssey.
It was not just Turner's work that was changing. Ruskin was taking on canonical titans like Gaspar Poussin and Claude Lorrain with the publication of Modern Painters, which challenged that the new British landscapes had one-upped the inveterate old masters. That Turner posits a "steam-boat" in Snowstorm is the subject of some discussion, as Harwich wasn't frequented by the new steam lines; his specific identification of the new technology might have been his comment on a rapidly changing world.
The period that earned Turner so much derision - the sunset of his career, as it were - is one that has commanded tremendous interest from contemporary audiences. This retrospective reveals that Turner is more than a missing link. At a transitional moment in British culture and painting, Turner was a force of evolution.
And from Time:
The Sunshine Boy
There's always something too good to be true about famous last words. Did Oscar Wilde really say, "Either that wallpaper goes or I do"? I certainly hope so, but still. So we should be careful with the claim that in his last recorded utterance, a few weeks before he died, the English painter J.M.W. Turner, the man who whipped up force fields of light, who could make light obliterate almost everything it fell on and then make it spell out everything else, turned to somebody and said, "The sun is God."
An exhibit of the English master's paintings has opened at the National Gallery in Washington. Here is a selection curated by TIME art critic Richard Lacayo
The last time there was a major Turner show in the U.S., 41 years ago, he was treated as a forerunner not only of the Impressionists but also of the Abstract Expressionists and color-field painters, of Mark Rothko and his pulsing fogs or Morris Louis and his washes of diluted pigment. But in recent years, scholars have been at pains to draw Turner back into the context of his times, to emphasize that he was eager to paint history and contemporary events and to look to the past as much as the future.
The phenomenal new Turner exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, which travels next to Dallas and New York City, is a show in that vein. With almost 150 works, it's a full picture of the entire man. All the same, while people will come away impressed by Turner the painter of historic events and modern horrors, one as forceful and sometimes as original as Goya, the man they'll be in awe of is still that other Turner, the incandescent bulb, the great conductor of solar power.
For an artist so taken by the sun, Turner was no Apollo. He was short, squat and beak-nosed. The offspring of a London barber, he spoke all his life with a Cockney accent. Even after he started to make good money, which happened soon, his fingernails were caked with pigment, and he kept one of them long, like a blues guitarist does, so that he could use it to scratch directly into the paint. Like Billy Joel or Elton John, he was a commoner who made good.
He came of age in the last years of an era of great English portraiture, of Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds and George Romney, when the British gentry were eager to be commemorated in the full regalia of the ruling classes. The elderly Reynolds was still president of the Royal Academy when the 14-year-old Turner was admitted to the Academy's school. But Turner would have been a disaster as a portraitist. He could draw as well as the best of them. In watercolor he could produce something like molecular detail, notwithstanding that one of his typical techniques was to soak the entire sheet in water, rub in raw pigment, blot it with rags and sponges and then painstakingly work up finer detail within the misty blooms of color. Yet as he matured, his deepest impulse wasn't to delineate form but to dissolve it. And where was the earl who wanted to be remembered as a blot?
At the turn of the 18th century, history painting was the highest purpose art could serve, and Turner would attempt those heights all his life. But his real achievement would be to make landscape the equal of history painting. More than that, he made it a kind of history painting, in which nature operates as a surrogate for the force of events. In his thunderous Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps, it's not even clear just where Turner has placed the Carthaginian general. Could he be that minuscule silhouette in the middle distance on a tiny elephant, the one dwarfed by the coiling surf of gray-brown cloud above his head? As the great storm explodes across the canvas, devouring the sickly yellow coin of the sun, the mighty general is just a comma in the larger scheme. This isn't merely history taking place in a landscape. It's landscape as the judgment of history.
And the Britons who crowded to see it in 1812 would not have missed Turner's mocking reference to Napoleon, who had just begun his advance into Russia. Twelve years earlier, the Little Colonel had been famously painted by Jacques-Louis David on a rearing horse, preparing to cross the Alps at St. Bernard Pass. The maelstrom that engulfs Hannibal, who would eventually be worn down by the Romans, is Turner's way of predicting that Napoleon would be cut down to size too. In the same way, The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834, Turner's furious account of the fire that destroyed the old seat of government, was understood in his own time--just like the fire itself--as a judgment on the corruption of Parliament.
Turner didn't always deal in turmoil. His great hero was Claude Lorrain, the 17th century French landscape painter who invented formats like the idealized harbor, places flanked by classical piles, where a setting sun bears down gently on the horizon. In Caernarvon Castle, an early watercolor flushed with orange twilight, Turner took Lorrain's tranquil model and invested it with the nostalgia and high-minded melancholy of English Romanticism.
He may not convince you that the sun is God. But he never lets you doubt that it's good.