Joseph Mallord William Turner is the kind of painter who will have you saying, no mas, you win! He had magnificent talent. I’ve been saving that phrase since seeing the Hopper and Rembrandt exhibits in the past few weeks. You could also call him a natural talent, whatever that may mean.
Turner began by making watercolor drawings for architects and then enrolled in the Royal Academy of Art. He was 15 when he had his first show there, no small feat. He exhibited his work in many venues, eventually opening his own gallery in his 20s. Someone once asked him how he had accomplished so much and he replied, “hard work.”
He is the Shakespeare of landscape.
-- Lord Tennyson
Hard work, indeed: I can imagine him, every waking moment, sketching if not painting. He was also quite accomplished at self-promotion and had a very successful career, making his fortune in the strong market for large scale historical paintings, many depicting Britain's past naval power. The Battle of Trafalgar, shown above, is his most grand with its dominating presence and wonderful billowing sails. Interestingly, most of his wealth was derived through the print market (engravings), which the British had mastered: many can be bought today for reasonable prices.
A new exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, J.M.W. Turner, is a broad sampling of the painter's career, totaling 70 paintings and 70 watercolors, many on loan from the Tate Gallery in London. Included are the dreamy mythological scenes, architectural compositions, and the work of Turner’s that I enjoy most, his late Impressionist paintings and watercolors. Several times I mistakenly thought, what is a Monet doing in this show? or is that a Manet? The influence Turner had on so many artists, up to and including Mark Rothko and to this day, is astounding. If you're a painter, you've studied Turner. His contemporaries didn’t catch on to what he was doing: they saw his paintings, especially the later work, as unfinished. What he was doing was fundamentally changing the process of painting, redefining how paint was applied to canvas or the wash to his studies.
Some highlights are, of course, the many watercolors, ten of which are various studies for the Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, which he witnessed in October 1834. They hang in a small gallery alongside two versions of the painting. Four Biblically inspired paintings, hung side by side, that will not only put the fear in you but most surely inspired Albert Pinkham Ryder’s paintings. Certainly a painting in the last gallery, Sunrise With Sea Monsters, did. The swirling vortex of black birds in The Evening of the Deluge reminded me of The Wizard of Oz, oh my...
J.M.W. Turner is a rare gem of an exhibit that took several years of planning and negotiation to assemble. It will be at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, from October 1 to January 6. The exhibit then travels to Dallas and then to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. My Flickr site has many more photos and details of my visit.