Sunday, September 21, 2008


Page Turner

In hopes of inducing a state just short of terminal envy in Larry Moran, I had the opportunity yesterday to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art's special exhibition of J.M.W. Turner's paintings and watercolors.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) was an English artist best known for his landscapes and seascapes. He was particularly adept at rendering sky and sea and, as he developed his art, he became more and more fascinated by portrayals of light and its effects. Some critics trace the first stirrings of Impressionism to an appreciation of this quality of Turner's work.

Here are some of my favorite paintings in the show:

Regulus (originally 1828 but reworked and re-exhibited in 1837) tells of Marcus Atilius Regulus, a Roman general and consul who was captured by the Carthaginians and sent back to Rome on parole to negotiate a peace. Instead, he urged Rome to fight on. Rather than break his parole, however, he voluntarily returned to Carthage where the naturally miffed Carthaginians, in this version of the story, cut off his eyelids before exposing him to the blinding rays of the sun. I've often wondered if you could go blind staring into that painting. I can now report that it merely burns the soul.

Fort Vimieux (1831) unlike much of Turner's work, was widely praised in his own time. It depicts an action off Vimereux, near Boulogne, during the Napoleonic wars. Napoleon had gathered together a formidable invasion flotilla, which the British were trying to lure out beyond the protection of the shore batteries. A British cruiser is depicted lying on its side, having run aground during such an attempt. She has been secured by anchors, one in the foreground, but is in a very precarious position, being fired on by the fort in the far distance. The light will soon go, hiding the ship from the gunners and the tide will then allow the ship to slip away to safety.

Mortlake Terrace, the Seat of William Moffatt, Esq.; Summer's Evening (1827) has a story connected with it that is illustrative of the artist. Turner had an unusual method of working. It was customary at the time for painters exhibiting at the Royal Academy to bring their works to the gallery for "varnishing day," when they could see their paintings in the position they would hang, apply any minor finishing touches and then apply varnish. Turner, instead, would paint only the merest outline of his ideas in color (many of which are now admired in their own right for their abstract beauty) and bring one to varnishing day and complete almost the entire painting in the gallery. It is said that a fellow artist, Edwin Landseer, feeling this painting needed an accent in the center, cut out the silhouette of a dog and stuck it on the parapet while Turner was having lunch. As recounted by Frederick Goodall, the son of one of Turner's engravers, when the artist returned, "he went up to the picture quite unconcernedly ... adjusted the little dog perfectly, and then varnished the paper and began painting it. And there it is to the present day."

Fishermen at Sea (1796) is the first oil painting Turner exhibited at the Royal Academy. And yet it forcefully displays the themes that his work would return to over and over again: the dynamic power of water and mankind's struggle with the elemental forces of nature, which was summed up in the title of his epic poem (much less epic than his paintings) "The Fallacies of Hope."

That is only the merest scratch on the surface of Turner's greatness. Turner willed much of his work to the Tate Museum in London and those lucky enough to live or visit there without making a pilgrimage to see Turner's work are making the gravest error.

I've always rather liked Turner. As an undergrad, I bought a poster of Bringing Anchors to the Men-O-War(?) at a student sale, and hung it on my wall in rez.
Boats With Anchors perhaps?
I don't know about Larry but I am certainly envious. In my view Turner, along with Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable, formed the great triumvirate of British art. Of the three, he was the most creative and adventurous. Constable's and Gainsborough's work, to me, is rooted in their Englishness. I can feel the England I know in their work. Turner's paintings, like those of the Impressionists he presaged, transcend his nationality.
Boats With Anchors perhaps?

That looks like the one.
If I were envious, I'd never admit it to you! :-)

But maybe I'll admit it to everyone else.
If I remember rightly from the exhibit, Fishermen at Sea was poorly recieved at first. Such a response seems extraordinary now.
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