Monday, April 23, 2007

Simply the Best

Joseph Mallord William Turner was born on this date in 1775. To me, Turner simply represents the best painting done since the Renaissance, combining the expert draftsmanship of his early work looking back towards the classical tradition and the experimental approach to light effects and free brushwork looking ahead to the Impressionists and all of modern art. John Ruskin, the critic who first championed Turner, called him “the greatest of his age,” and I think even that was an understatement.

When the PMA member discussion board asked for my favorite work in their collection, without any hesitation I said Turner’s Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834 (shown above). Turner’s Burning remains one of those touchstone paintings in the PMA collection that I try to visit whenever I go there, if time allows. One of my favorite PMA memories is of sitting on a bench in front of Turner’s work in the British section, mesmerized by the colors and handling of the paint, taking in the dancing flames and the rhythm of the water, reveling in the solitude and silence of the empty, unguarded room. Alas, a tour group noisily working its way to another work finally broke the spell, but I still treasure that memory.

Seeing the Turners at the Tate Britain served as a kind of pilgrimage for me. To see his actual painting box and brushes on display felt like looking at holy relics. It’s easy to see why England chose Turner to represent them at the 50th anniversary of the European Union. If only each country and each age could claim such a talent.

(Those interested in learning more about Turner should read my favorite biography of him, Standing in the Sun: A Life of J.M.W. Turner by Anthony Bailey.)

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