California Literary Review

The Life and Art of J.M.W. Turner

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February 26th, 2008 at 9:50 am

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The Battle of Trafalgar by J.M.W. Turner

The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805, 1823-1824.
Oil on canvas, 103 x 145 inches.
National Maritime Museum, London, Greenwich Hospital Collection

“Soapsuds and whitewash!” “Pictures of nothing and very like.”

With these dismissive words, J.M.W. Turner, the greatest British painter of all time and one of the titans of world art, was scorned by the society he sought to enlighten.

For American art lovers, there is now an unprecedented opportunity to gain insight into Turner’s art. A magnificent exhibition, currently on view at the Dallas Museum of Art, presents the entire range of Turner’s astonishing 60 year career with over 140 oil paintings, water colors and prints. These include some of his greatest works, with many examples coming from the Tate Gallery in London, the principal repository of his work.

The exhibition traces Turner’s evolution from a popular young painter of England’s verdant countryside to an artistic revolutionary who laid the foundation for modern abstract art. The exhibition provides ample opportunity to comprehend why Turner’s works, especially of his later years, had such a jarring effect on Regency and Victorian Britain. Look closely at many of his paintings and it is plain to see why honors and accolades were denied Turner during his lifetime. Examine both his topical allusions and artistic techniques, and the disdain and derision of the British art establishment and the popular press towards him will be more understandable, if entirely unmerited.

About mid-way through the exhibition is an oil painting of cinemascope dimensions, The Battle of Trafalgar, October 21, 1805. Painted a decade after the pivotal naval engagement, Turner’s Trafalgar shows Lord Nelson’s flagship, H.M.S. Victory, engaging the French fleet with an unassailable display of British valor and firepower. Turner, who was obsessive in accurately depicting the details of sails, rigging and other naval accoutrements, pulled out all the stops on this painting which was commissioned by King George IV. It was the biggest canvas he ever painted, measuring 8 ½ -by-12-feet. At first glance, it seems a patriotic tour de force, the kind of work that should have gained Turner a knighthood and many more requests from the British Crown. In fact, the painting was criticized by naval officers and failed to gain public acclaim. Turner never received another Royal commission, nor was he ever accorded honors by the British government, which annually heaped them on lesser talents.

The reason for the painting’s failure lies in the human drama taking place in the foreground. A group of sailors from a sunken ship are being helped into a life boat. But one man, head thrown back and arms spread out in the murky water, is beyond rescue. His face is frozen in horror, with a stricken gaze worthy of comparison with the living death mask of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, painted 70 years later.

By placing squalid details of suffering and death in the forefront of a paean to military glory, Turner shattered the conventions of art and society. Turner gave his countrymen the art they needed to reflect upon, rather than the art they wanted to see. It was a shocking display of “bad form,” an offense that Turner would repeat at varying intervals until his death in 1851.

Turner did not begin his long career as an iconoclast, however. His first works, like The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, painted in 1794, embraced popular themes of England’s natural beauty and the moody, Gothic sentimentality induced by ruined churches and crumbling castles. Turner’s success as a landscape painter was so immediate that he was elected to the Royal Academy in 1802 at the age of 26. Not bad for a barber’s son, a Cockney Londoner who had grown up in the teeming streets around Covent Garden and the banks of the Thames.

Turner’s early success was due in no small measure to one of the great shifts in Western culture, the emergence of Romanticism. Throughout the 17th and early 18th centuries, the hold of Classical culture on the imagination of the ruling elites of Europe was so complete that victorious generals still posed for their portraits in armor like ancient Roman proconsuls, and landscape paintings without Greek or Roman buildings or mythological settings were rare indeed. But as the 18th century neared its close, a growing number of English artists such as Thomas Gainsborough began treating the English landscape as a worthy subject in its own right, as a paradise found rather than as a lost Arcadia.

Although he remained a devotee of the great classically inspired French painter of the 17th century, Claude Lorraine, the young Turner skillfully evoked the Romantic love of nature in water color and oil. His services were soon much in demand by the English aristocracy to paint their lands and country houses, a superb example, Raby Castle, the Seat of the Earl of Darlington, appearing in the exhibition.

Raby Castle by J.M.W. Turner

Raby Castle, the Seat of the Earl of Darlington, 1818
Oil on canvas, 45 7/8 x 71 1/8 inches.
The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Raby Castle, which is part of the collection of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, presents a panoramic view of the countryside of northern England. Lord Darlington’s castle appears in the distance behind a screen of trees like a mythic Camelot or Avalon. The swirling interplay of wind and cloud is the real protagonist of this inspired work, alternately shading or illumining the undulating hills over which Lord Darlington and his fox-hunting hounds scamper, transient passers-by on a landscape that barely acknowledges their presence.

There will always be an England, Raby Castle and many of Turner’s other early landscapes affirm.

But in another virtuoso depiction of nature, Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps, Turner revealed a more pessimistic side of his nature that would come increasingly to the fore as age and life experience left their mark.

Snow Storm by J.M.W. Turner

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, 1812.
Oil on canvas, 57 ½ x 93 ½ inches.
Tate, London, Bequeathed by the Artist, 1856.

Painted in 1812, the climactic year of the Napoleonic Wars, Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps represented a major turning point in Turner’s career. A violent assault of wind and weather overhangs the invading army of Hannibal like an engulfing wave as it tries to force its way to the distant valleys of Italy. In the foreground, a similar scene to the later Trafalgar shows war in its most elemental form as barbarians ambush stragglers from Hannibal’s host. Some commentators have thought that Snow Storm was painted in reference to the epic military campaigns underway in Spain and Russia. Turner was certainly politically aware, but this mighty work of art is more a demonstration of the dark vision of Romanticism than an allusion to a specific contemporary event. As the promise of liberty represented by the French Revolution faded and the malign effects of the parallel Industrial Revolution became manifest, a bleak note of fatalism crept into the art and writings of the Romantic Generation.

“The Fallacies of Hope” Turner would call this crisis of faith and he would attach excerpts from an unfinished poem of that title to a number of his paintings. The eventual defeat of Napoleon in 1815, however, opened the path of travel to the continent of Europe which had been denied to Turner except during a brief period of peace in 1802. Italy and its glowing, sunlit hills, the objective of Hannibal’s forced march, beckoned him. It was there, beginning with his visit in 1819, that Turner discovered the golden hues that would transform his painting and lay the foundation for modern art.

The exhibition presents several examples of Turner’s Italian oeuvre, including the Temple of Poseidon at Sunion, Cape Colonna, a work in pencil, watercolor, and gouache on paper dating from 1834. This study of stark ancient ruins is an apocalyptic vision of gold and tones of midnight blue. All traces of life have vanished save for two forlorn dogs crouching by a tumbled bas relief. Very much in the spirit of “Fallacies of Hope, this magnificent painting shows the process by which color increasingly gained dominion over form in Turner’s later work.

Turner’s several visits to Venice continued this aesthetic trend, though with a less melancholy perspective. Turner’s many paintings of the Grand Canal, like the 1835 oil, Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute, on loan to the exhibition from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, enabled him to explore the fusion of sky and sea, misty haze and shimmering water with the grand palaces and churches of Venice pushed to the margins of his canvases.

Nature in the form of searing sunlight and raging storms increasingly blotted out the works of man in the later paintings of Turner. This was an ironic juxtaposition of his painterly vision with the spirit of his times. For the progressive spirit of early Victorian Britain was propagating a world view whereby the industrial juggernaut of railroads, steam ships and factories would reshape the world to suit humankind’s fancy.

Norham Castle, Sunrise by J.M.W Turner

Norham Castle, Sunrise, c. 1845
Oil on canvas 35 ¾ x 47 5/8 inches.
Tate, London, Bequeathed by the Artist, 1856
© Tate, London

In one of his last works, Norham Castle, Sunrise, painted in oils around 1845, the castle ceases to be a recognizable edifice. It is merely a blue-tinged specter, fog shrouded at its base and bathed by wane yellow sunlight. The creature in the foreground may be a horse, a cow, a dog or a deer. Whatever Turner’s intention with this mystical, hypnotic work, the effect is nothing less than to present the moment of birth of modern art.

Turner was regarded as a mustard-slinging madman in the journals and newspapers of his time. A more perceptive critic, his Royal Academy rival John Constable, commented that Turner had “a wonderful range of mind.” Thanks to this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition, Turner’s “wonderful range” will be extended to all those fortunate enough to glimpse the visions that he was the first to see.

Dallas Museum of Art, February 10–May 18, 2008
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, June 24–September 21, 2008

  • Susan Lloyd

    Wonderful review-really made me want to see the show. The quotes that will stay with me are “Turner gave his countrymen the art they needed to reflect upon, rather than the art they wanted to see” and “whatever Turner’s intention with this mystical, hypnotic work, the effect is nothing less than to present the moment of birth of modern art.”
    Well done!

  • Graham Fairfax

    In 2005 I was fortunate enough to have seen the Turner Whistler Monet exhibiton at Tate Britain, arguably the most impressive assemblage of their collective oeuvre of all time.
    The age of Romanticism, if it may be regarded thus,influenced many painters of the time.Shelley was a major driving force for Turner whilst Baudelaire,Swinburne and Mallarme,both of whom were students in Paris, inspired collectively the poetically haunting visions that Whistler and Monet committed to canvas.Undoubtedly,however,their greatest influence was provided by the ‘soapsuds and – whitewash’of the true genius of one JWM Turner-England’s greatest artistic visionary.
    Congratulations on a superb article.

  • http://www.elvisinmybasement.com Kmuzu

    The master of liquid light.

  • Pingback: John Constable: Oil Sketches from the Victoria and Albert Museum | California Literary Review

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