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J.M.W. Turner at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Thomas Hollingworth

Entrance to the J.M.W. Turner exhibition at the MET

Sadly, the much heralded J.M.W. Turner retrospective at the MET closes tomorrow. For anyone who is not going to get to see it there is a brief walk through below. The exhibition was the first time I had seen many of Turner’s works up close and although many were cased in glass, no pictures were allowed (oops), and every one of the six of so rooms was stuffy and library-esq, the amount of work—all chronologically arranged—and the sensitivity with which it was presented amounted to one of the best museum shows I have seen so far this year.

Exhibition view of J.M.W. Turner at the MET

Joseph Mallard William Turner (1775-1851), the son of a barber and wigmaker in London’s Covent Garden, dominated landscape painting in Britain during the first half of the nineteenth century. Although he initially became known for his topographical watercolors, which he began exhibiting at the Royal Academy in London in 1790, he harbored greater ambitions, aspiring to elevate landscape to the status in which history painting was held. He posited himself as the heir to the classical landscape tradition, as embodied in the pictures of Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) and, especially Claude Lorrain (ca. 1604-1682), whose work he emulated throughout his career.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (English, 1775–1851), The Shipwreck, exhibited 1805. Oil on canvas; 67 1/8 x 95 1/8 in. Tate, London, Turner Bequest, 1856. About 1800, shipwreck imagery figured prominently in both art and literature, often serving as a metaphor for human vulnerability before the forces of nature. With this painting, Turner, whose early reputation was made largely through marine pictures, was likely recalling the recent sinking of the Earl of Abergavenny off the coast of Weymouth in 1805. The painting’s topicality, then, might have led to Turner’s decision to have it engraved—his first oil to be reproduced in this fashion.

Turner explored a wide range of genres—from landscapes to historical subjects and scenes from his imagination—and was a prolific and innovative painter and watercolorist as well as a printmaker. Upon meeting Turner is 1813, his contemporary and erstwhile rival John Constable (1776-1837), wrote, “He is uncouth but has a wonderful range of mind.” Turner gained notoriety for his bravura displays during the Vanishing Days that preceded the opening of the Royal Academy exhibitions, when he reworked his pictures as they hung on the wall. By the late 1840’s his increasingly abstract images, in which forms were subsumed by light and color, were mockingly dismissed by critics as “the fruits of a diseased eye and a reckless hand.” The influential critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) took up Turner as a special interest and proclaimed his greatness as a landscape painter, thereby contributing to the artists fame on both sides of the Atlantic among collectors such as James Lenox (1800-1880) of New York, and artists, including Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900).

Joseph Mallord William Turner (English, 1775–1851), Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, exhibited 1812. Oil on canvas; 57 1/2 x 93 1/2 in. Tate, London, Turner Bequest, 1856. In this ambitious work, ancient and modern history converge in the context of the Sublime landscape. Turner depicted the Carthaginian general Hannibal and his army in a skirmish with local tribesmen in 218 B.C., as recorded by Livy. This image of Hannibal’s Alpine crossing would have resonated in the context of recent events, as Napoleon had crossed the Alps when he invaded Italy in 1800; when the painting was exhibited in 1812, England was at war with Napoleonic France. Critics praised the work’s naturalism as well as its intellectual underpinning: “The moral and physical elements are here in powerful unison blended by a most masterly hand, awakening emotions of awe and grandeur.”

After a turbulent career, Turner’s reputation waned, and he died in relative obscurity in 1851. In 1906, when a group of his late, unfurnished oils was first exhibited, the inherent abstraction of his work fascinated modern critics and he was reborn as an avant-garde artist. His art and his legacy continue to evoke tradition and modernity: he is both the artist who stipulated in his will that his paintings hang beside the work of Claude Lorrain in London’s National Gallery and the inspiration for the Turner Prize, the award for contemporary art given by the Tate.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (English, 1775–1851), Snow Storm—Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water, and Going by the Lead. The Author Was in this Storm on the Night the Ariel Left Harwich, exhibited 1842. Oil on canvas; 36 x 48 in. (91.4 x 121.9 cm). Tate, London, Turner Bequest, 1856. John Ruskin proclaimed this work to be “one of the very grandest statements of sea-motion, mist and light, that has ever been put on canvas, even by Turner.” Turner’s enigmatic title, which confers a documentary quality on the painting, has led scholars to search for a steamboat called Ariel and to consider whether the artist could have witnessed such a storm, as he claims. Turner, stung by the criticism the work received at the 1842 Royal Academy exhibition, allegedly responded, “I did not paint it to be understood, but I wished to show what such a scene was like.”

And now I will end, as anything that is read here today is unavoidably bias, aggrandizing and so need not be further reinforced. I find it difficult to be critical about Turner as he has always been a personal longtime favorite. From growing up in the English countryside, hemmed in by rain and often chased from the highlands into smelly little sheep-poo caves by swirling tempests, the English landscape and its violent schizophrenic tendencies have long been embedded in me. As someone with artistic pretensions, a love of painting and a wealth of experience outside amongst the elements I feel that Turner—rivaled by but a few—stands out as being the one of the most honest, literal and complimentary landscape painters to date.

His suggested forms, dexterity with light and rebellious greatness are masterful to me, and whilst his progression as an artist was not as quick as Egon Schiele, for example, his was able, even with a “diseased eye and reckless hand” to forge a new direction for his vocation and paint his way into the history books with a style that was undeniably radical, emotive and driven—this is particularly true of his ‘unfinished works’ my favorite of which is pictured (apologies for the pictures) below [.]

–Thomas Hollingworth.

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J.M.W. Turner at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Thomas Hollingworth