Virtuoso and visionary painter Joseph Mallord William Turner has long been presented as a prophet of the modern age. His swirling, atmospheric late landscapes have tempted many to categorize him as the first father of impressionism. The last major show of Turner’s work in this country, held in 1966 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, cast him as an advance man for abstraction, more interested in loose brushwork than grand narratives.
That is a small part of the story, as reflected in the National Gallery of Art’s magisterial “J.M.W. Turner.” The most comprehensive American exhibition ever devoted to the artist, this glorious survey of 146 paintings and watercolors reveals a more tradition-bound Turner than past interpretations of his work suggest.
The great skill of this early-19th-century artist was to look backward and forward at the same time. Merging the figural, didactic painting of the old masters with the lowlier genre of landscapes, he created a spectacular art form all his own.
Turner didn’t omit gods and heroes as in the more factual, bucolic landscapes by his contemporary John Constable, but staged these figures to support the dazzling and destructive protagonist of nature. Blazing sunlight, roiling waves and billowing smoke dramatize Turner’s epic retelling of biblical, allegorical and historical tales.
Impressionism’s ancestor turns out to be British to the core, consumed by the history of his seafaring nation. His art developed during the two decades of war between Britain and France preceding Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat in 1815. Like others of his generation, Turner painted battle scenes, but — unlike them — not always in a heroic way.
“The Field of Waterloo,” a pile of bodies, shows women searching by candlelight for their kin, with some rifling the pockets of the dead. More spectacular, “The Battle of Trafalgar,” the artist’s largest canvas and only royal commission, highlights sailors desperately clinging to lifeboats and jumping from a sinking ship into bloodied waters.
Though a patriot, Turner reminded Britain of its weaknesses and injustices. His elegiac scenes of ancient Rome and Carthage and the places where he traveled — Venice, in particular — were intended as allegorical lessons in the decay of empires.
Unafraid to tackle the controversial subject of slavery, Turner painted “Disaster at Sea” to commemorate the 1833 destruction of the slave ship Amphitrite off the French coast. In this unfinished work, women and children are shown drowning in churning waters. It is a raw scream of protest on par with Picasso’s “Guernica.” Unfortunately not shown is its companion, “The Slave Ship,” based on the true story of a captain who threw ill slaves overboard so he could collect insurance money.
Though he confronted the moral issues of his day, Turner was no radical. The unpretentious Londoner, who looked more like a farmer than a painter, enjoyed support from wealthy aristocratic patrons. He won praise from writer and theorist John Ruskin, who defended and promoted his work even when most critics derided it.
Turner was a savvy businessman and catered to popular tastes with engravings of his maritime, rustic and antiquarian scenes. The exhibit includes sepia-toned images known as the “Book of Studies” that the painter reproduced so his art could reach a wider audience. In 1804, he opened a private gallery to show his pictures during times when they weren’t on public view.
His success and fame came as the result of hard work. Born in 1775 to a barber and wig maker, Turner apprenticed to an architectural draftsman before enrolling in the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts at age 14. Early watercolors of picturesque Gothic ruins and churches reflect a strong grasp of architectonics that continued to structure his later oils.
One of Turner’s achievements was to win newfound respect for the medium of watercolor by revealing its expressive possibilities in scenes as evocative as oils. The exhibit alternates between his works on paper and larger canvases to reveal an increasingly close relationship between the two.
As the wunderkind of the academy, Turner easily absorbed the influences of the old masters: the dramatic shadows of a Rembrandt, the golden glow of a Claude Lorrain, the classical structure of a Nicholas Poussin. He synthesized their allegorical scenes with sublime effects meant to shock and awe, enlightening the viewer to the powers of nature. His was a new type of landscape art, combining learned references from the past with direct observations from sketching outdoors.
It made for the thrilling scenes in the second gallery, all based on Turner’s travels abroad while still in his 20s. “Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps” is cinematographic in its dispersal of military action under a dark, vaporous arch framing a vastness of space and time.
In “Fall of the Rhine,” a great rush of water conveys the same force as would be felt decades later in “Niagara” by American Frederic Church, who, along with his teacher Thomas Cole, were followers of the Briton’s work.
Like a Hollywood movie director, Turner understood the popular appeal of a good disaster picture. He painted plagues, fires, floods and shipwrecks with an almost tabloid zeal. Within these scenes of catastrophe, human figures are portrayed in a rudimentary way, without individualistic features, as if to reinforce their small place in the universe.
When the Houses of Parliament burned in 1834, Turner rushed with the throng to watch and record his impressions on paper. The exhibit joins his splotchy watercolors of the conflagration with a brilliant duo of oils. These fiery, smoke-filled pictures show the disaster from different perspectives.
By this time, the artist was taking advantage of newly available brighter pigments to suffuse his scenes with radiant light and outshine the competition. During “varnishing days” at the academy, when artists were allowed to make adjustments to their pictures, he piled on the paint to flesh out a canvas. In finishing “Regulus,” a tragic tale of a Roman general whose captors cut off his eyelids and made him face the sun, Turner coated the surface with white to represent the searing brink of blindness.
Color was paramount to the meaning of his paintings. Toward the end of the exhibit, kaleidoscopic paintings of the biblical flood reveal how he explored German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s theories on warm and cool hues. Even at their most abstract, his paintings are grounded in reason.
To the end, Turner was a marine painter who used water to convey Britain’s national aspirations as well as the ephemeral qualities of nature. By the time of an 1842 picture of an imperiled steamboat, sea and sky had merged into a swirling vortex of snow, wind and waves. This is one of the last finished paintings before the exhibit ends in a blur of half-baked works resuscitated in the 1900s as part of Turner’s legacy.
This unnecessary mystical coda seems meant for those who still cling to the reductive notion that the painter was a rebellious modernist. After seeing Turner’s career unfold in this show, they certainly will gain a more nuanced understanding of his narrative art.
WHAT: “J.M.W. Turner”
WHERE: National Gallery of Art, West Building, Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest
WHEN: Monday through Jan. 6; Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
WEB SITE: www.nga.gov