- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 16, 2002

British artist Joseph Mallord William (J.M.W.) Turner became known as the father of expressive modernism to the generations who came after him. The artist well could embody modernism's frank emotionalism and frequent brevity of means with his spare brush touches of watercolor on paper and soft flecks of tinted light.
The adulation, however, is somewhat misguided. Although Turner (1775 to 1851) was remarkably forward-looking, he was a 19th-century Romantic who distilled himself and his life experiences in scenes of nature.
The artist, like his contemporary English poet William Wordsworth, loved nature so intensely that it became his alter ego. In wanting to become one with nature, he was similar to the English artist William Blake, the French painters Theodore Gericault and Eugene Delacroix and the German master Caspar David Friedrich.
Tomorrow, the Baltimore Museum of Art opens the exhibition "Reflections of Sea and Light: Paintings and Watercolors by J.M.W. Turner From Tate." The display of more than 100 watercolors, oil paintings, drawings and prints from the Tate Gallery in London is the first major U.S. exhibit of Turner's seascapes. It draws from 40 years of his career.
Turner painted boats thrown high in the sea. He also painted ships becalmed. He evoked pounding waves, peaceful seashores and undulating sunrises and sunsets. He called up thundering waves with just a few dabs of the brush, roughed in meager blues and whites for spraying surf and washed reflected sunlight to evoke glistening waterways.
His images are like those from another world. The watercolors, especially, seem to simulate half-remembered dreams. Even early works such as "Shipping at the Mouth of the Thames" (1806-07) show Turner's evocative power.
The artist created atmosphere and light with colors of a rare purity, and this sets his work apart from other maritime paintings of the era. The "Thames" seascape excites, and the image heaves. The sun's pink reflection pierces the clouds, water churns, and fishermen hold tightly to their boats.
His initial fame came with seascapes when England fought France and ruled the English Channel. In "Thames," a large military ship on the right patrols the area and protects fishing boats navigating the turbulent waters.
The sea held special importance for English artists and the English in general. It helped form a protective barrier against enemies, represented Britain's military might and isolation during the Napoleonic War and helped represent Britain's success as a colonial power.

Turner was a natural artist and jump-started his career early. The son of a London barber, he sold his art in his father's shop window as early as his teens. His mother was a wig maker.
At age 15, he entered London's Royal Academy schools the year the French Revolution began. Turner was elected to the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts when he was 26.
He also studied at the home of Dr. Thomas Monro, a medical doctor and amateur watercolorist. Turner copied works by artists in the doctor's important collection from 1794 to 1797. Monro also treated Turner's mother when she became mentally ill.
Despite his lowly beginnings, Turner was a good businessman and managed his career well. Historical painting topped the hierarchy of subjects at the Royal Academy when he began. The artist imbued his landscapes with a higher moral meaning in order to elevate them within this hierarchical structure.
Turner was influenced by the French painter Claude Lorrain (circa 1604/05-82), the greatest champion of the ideal, or classical, landscape.
Turner decided to show the potential of landscape by creating 70 prints for what he called the "Liber Studiorum" (1807-19). It was a personal declaration of his faith in landscape art, and he divided his "Liber" into six types. It was based loosely on Lorrain's "Liber Veritatis," which Turner probably saw in England at the time.
He planned the work for wide distribution through engravings. He worked with every step of the print process, even etching the preliminary design into the plates before turning them over to the printer.
The BMA exhibition juxtaposes prints with paintings, which is a great joy. Baltimore curator Jay Fisher placed the large, idyllic oil "Rocky Bay With Figures" (circa 1827-30) next to the print of the same name. Both show Turner's habitual massing of natural forms in this case a fantastic rock formation to one side of the composition and the emphatic delineation of foreground details.
Turner's genius took a giant step between 1825 and 1845 with his series "Picturesque Views in England and Wales." He visited Venice, Italy, in 1833 and saw the Venetian painter Canaletto's special treatment of light. He traveled to Scotland in 1831 and toured Belgium and the German part of the Rhine River in 1839. The trips widened his horizons, and he focused more and more on the essence of nature.
In his "Picturesque Views," he drew and painted a series of works for engravings that transmitted the power of the sea and the elements.
He painted almost abstract watercolors of storm-tossed waters, wind-battered castles and calm sunrises. Landscapes such as "Margate Harbour at Sunrise (Honfleur)," "A Sunset Sky" and "Tornaro" seem just touches of washes that suggest color.
The show ends with examples from the late period of Turner's work, exhibited in a brilliantly hued, wine-colored gallery. The watercolors, chalk drawings, oils and gouaches sum up the atmospheric effects of light he always sought and then radically abstracted.
Turner was reclusive and short and stocky, with a prominent nose and receding chin. He never married, though he fathered two children. He stubbornly tried to keep his professional and personal lives strictly separate.
A.J. Finberg wrote in "The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A.: " He was thoroughly plebian in all things, a consummate workman and tradesman.The only interesting thing about him is that he was the man who painted Turner's pictures. He lived entirely for his work."
Turner himself wrote, "No one seeing me would believe, upon seeing my likeness, that I painted these pictures."
The artist spent his last years in his home on Queen Anne Street in London. Although it was described as "dingy and unkempt," the house saw many visitors. His other residence was a small artisan's house overlooking the Thames River, which he kept secret from his friends.
Turner was concerned about his place in art history and bequeathed much of the art he owned when he died to England. He had carefully planned what he would leave by keeping many works and buying back those he thought important.
Fortunately, many of the sketches and drawings for the prints remain. Tate curator Ian Warrell chose to emphasize that Turner was forward-looking by displaying them rather than the more famous paintings. He wanted to stress Turner's genius by displaying the watercolor sketches and preliminary pencil drawings.

WHAT: "Reflections of Sea and Light: Paintings and Watercolors By J.M.W. Turner From Tate"
WHERE: Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Museum Drive, Baltimore
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends, free on the first Thursday of each month from 5 to 8 p.m.; tomorrow through May 26
TICKETS: $12 adults; $10 for seniors, college students and groups of 15 or more; $6 for ages 6 to 18; and free for children younger than 6. Timed tickets on weekends through TicketMaster by phone, online and at Ticketmaster outlets. Tickets also may be purchased at the museum box office.
PHONE: 410/752-1200 or 800/551-SEAT

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