“The Sun is God,” J.M.W. Turner reportedly said on his deathbed, acknowledging the source of his greatest inspiration and the true star of his greatest masterpieces. No one paints the sun as magnificently as Turner, not before or since. In Regulus (above), Turner recounts the story of the Roman general Marcus Atilius Regulus, whom the Carthaginians tortured by cutting away his eyelids and facing him towards the sun. Turner places us in the position of Regulus, helpless before the solar power of his imagination and blinded by his seemingly effortless skill. Turner heavily reworked Regulus during the varnishing days just before the Royal Academy exhibit, when artists could see their paintings in place and make any necessary adjustments. In the equivalent of an artistic “throwdown,” Turner would turn these adjustments into a statement for his fellow artists. “With the clock ticking, he then effected miraculous transformations, gradually adding more paint to create descriptive details until he was satisfied with his work, the whole process assuming the quality of a performance for his peers,” writes Ian Warrell in the catalogue to the J.M.W. Turner exhibition currently at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. “Such calculated showmanship, of course, augmented the perception of Turner as an assured alchemist, absolutely at one with his materials.” The magical Turner still blinds us with his tricks, but the NGA’s exhibition and catalogue help open our eyes to the man behind the legend and the true “secret” of his art. As Turner himself confessed, “The only secret I have got is damned hard work.”
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Rouen Cathedral (from "Turner's Annual Tour - The Seine" (1834)), c. 1832; gouache and watercolor on paper, 30 x 42.5 cm (11 13/16 x 16 3/4), Tate, London, Bequeathed by the Artist, 1856, © Tate, London
Warrell, editor of the catalogue, begins the revelations with his essay, “J.M.W. Turner and the Pursuit of Fame,” which follows “the underlying desire for recognition, and its related fear of insignificance, that had propelled and sustained the artist through a long career marked at one extreme by critical and material success, and at the other by controversy and outrage.” The Turner that emerges from the mists of time stands as a shrewd businessman, conscious of the art market and his buying public, but never at the expense of his artistic integrity or a demeaning of the role he saw for his art in serving his nation. This restored Turner has been a long time in coming. “Since the 1960s,… a tidal wave of new scholarship has re-evaluated Turner and his art more fully, combining to present a much more complex individual, who emerges as a less isolated figure, more in step with the intellectual and artistic preoccupations of his own period,” Warrell writes. Thus, works such as Rouen Cathedral (above) can be seen simultaneously as great visual works of art and calculated attempts to capitalize on the growing market for picturesque scenes of the Grand Tour. Turner the businessman mixes business and the pleasure of painting masterfully in the final analysis, bequeathing a treasure trove of his works to the nation upon his death as a gesture of patriotism and good advertising. By instructing that some works be hung beside those of Claude Lorraine, Turner’s model for great landscape, Turner acknowledges his debts and invites comparison, confident that he’ll win in the end.
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), The Fifth Plague of Egypt, 1800; oil on canvas, unframed: 121.9 x 182.9 cm (48 x 72); framed: 139.7 x 205.7 x 8.9 cm (55 x 81 x 3 1/2), Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift in memory of Evan F. Lilly
Despite his acceptance as a full member of the Royal Academy at the age of 26, the youngest member ever, Turner remained a man of the people. After the defeat of Napoleon, Turner rushed to the battlefield of Waterloo with the rest of the thrill seekers. The Field of Waterloo (above) records the aftermath of the carnage, surprisingly free of jingoism considering the patriotic fervor of the moment—a testament to Turner’s profound humanity in his choice to show women and children searching among the dead of both sides rather than some stirring moment of pure, victorious joy. In his paintings of the great moments of contemporary British history, Turner always gives the crowd not what they think they want but what he thinks they need. The Field of Waterloo shows the cost of war and the shared humanity of victor and vanquished, cutting off at the knees the rampant nationalism that fueled the endless wars draining Britain dry. In The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory (1806, reworked 1808), Turner paints the bittersweet moment of victory at Trafalgar coupled with the death of Admiral Lord Nelson. Rather than paint another heroic portrait dominated by Nelson, Turner dwarfs the great man in the chaos of battle, memorializing the fallen hero but offering visual perspective of that one death measured against those of the unheralded many. The exhibit and catalogue devote an entire section on Turner’s exploration of the burning of the Houses of Parliament in 1834, another turning point in British history that Turner turns askew of the standard spin by adding his own idea of that event’s meaning. Polls run in England today asking for a favorite all-time painting consistently end with Turner’s works at the top, proof of his continued ability to help shape the consciousness of his native land.
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Norham Castle, Sunrise, c. 1845; oil on canvas, 90.8 x 121 cm (35 3/4 x 47 5/8); framed: 106 x 137 x 7.3 cm (41 3/4 x 53 15/16 x 2 7/8), Tate, London, Bequeathed by the Artist, 1856, © Tate, London
The catalogue concludes with an essay by Franklin Kelly, senior curator of American and British painting at the NGA, on Turner and America. Few Americans knew Turner’s work firsthand during his lifetime. Turner became aware of American interest in his art and worked with American publishers to create prints of his works, which served as the colorless basis of American appreciation of Turner until American artists such as Washington Allston and Thomas Cole venture to see Turners in person. Face to face with Turner’s art, Cole calls him “the prince of evil spirits,” offering wonderful depictions of nature paired with temptations to unreal flights of imagination. The publication of John Ruskin’s Modern Painters in 1843 (first American edition in 1847) promotes the “true to nature” Turner over the wild visionary. The Hudson River School, especially Frederic Edwin Church, soon falls under Turner’s influence. In 1845, James Lenox purchases Staffa, Fingal’s Cave, the first Turner brought to America, beginning the love affair that has made America second only to England as home to the most works by Turner. In the 1880s, Thomas Moran embraces Turner as no other American had before him, making pilgrimages to the many countries Turner had painted to work in the same exact spots as the master. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the realist, Ruskinian Turner cedes to the visionary Turner in terms of influence as shown in the work of George Inness and Albert Pinkham Ryder. With the rise of modernism in the twentieth century, “Turner and his art became increasingly disassociated from his own time and more and more located in a perceived aesthetic chain of development leading to abstract painting,” Franklin argues. Paintings such as Norham Castle, Sunrise (above) influence Mark Rothko and others with their bold color and visionary excess. Turner’s crowning as proto-modernist culminates in the 1966 MOMA exhibition that presents Turner’s later, unfinished works (which British galleries considered unfit to hang in the nineteenth century) as his greatest works. Since that 1966 exhibition, scholars have worked to unseat the visionary Turner as the primary persona known to the public, a salvage operation that the NGA’s exhibition brings to another level.
The curator of the 1966 MOMA show, Lawrence Gowing said at that time, “It is not certain that we are prepared to see him whole.” Our incomplete comprehension stems in part from our inability to see Turner “plain” again. “Did you once see Shelley plain?” Robert Browning once asked disbelievingly of an eyewitness to another Romantic wonder who once roamed the earth. Contemporaries always remarked how disappointing meeting Turner in person could be, the short, unkempt man unable to live up to the Romantic image of the artist. Turner passed himself off as an old sea captain at the end of his life while living in obscurity with an old seaman’s widow. A Turner unencrusted by the barnacles of rhetoric and analysis built up over time may be impossible. Our incomprehensibility of Turner also mirrors that surrounding England’s other artistic giant—Shakespeare. (Turner himself invited comparison to Shakespeare in claiming the same birthday as the Bard.) Neither of these universes unto themselves could ever be seen at once, then or now. The NGA’s exhibition serves more as a deep-space probe into that universe, allowing us to venture back to the “Big Bang” moment when that cosmos of Turner was born and to appreciate the shockwaves that have rippled ever since.
[Many thanks to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC for providing me with a review copy of the catalogue to and the images from the J.M.W. Turner exhibition.]