Sunday, September 21, 2008
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:
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.