Catch Turner Exhibit Before It Leaves the USA

J. M. W. Turner: Watercolors From Tate [sic]
Thompson Exhibition Building
Mystic Seaport, Connecticut
Through February 23, 2020
[Click on image for larger size]

How many musicians, athletes, and actors can you conjure who were proclaimed gifted at an early age, believed their press clippings, and lived like spoiled brats for the rest of their days? The artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was a bit like that, except he really was as good as billed. How often does a working-class kid with a Cockney accent get admitted to London’s Royal Academy of Arts at age 14, or get to exhibit as a 15-year-old? How often does such a person go on to produce more than 32,000 paintings?

J. M. W. Turner was a true enfant terrible for all of his days. He never married, but sired two daughters with his housekeeper. He was also known for behaviors that some charitably labeled eccentric, but fall more into the realm of the vulgarian: sloppy snuff habits, shabby appurtenances, social ineptitude, and treatment of others that ran the narrow gamut between disinterest and abuse. The portrayal of such behaviors is about the only thing that makes Mike Leigh’s film Mr. Turner (2014) worth watching.

For all of that, J. M. W. Turner might well be the most accomplished landscape painter in British history. There are just a few weeks left to catch a show of 93 Turner watercolors and 4 of his oils. You should make it happen if you humanly can; Mystic, Connecticut is the only place in the entire country in which these loaners from London’s Tate Gallery have been or will be on display. After February 23, they will be packed and sent off to Paris before returning to the Tate.

Burning Ship
Turner is known for dramatic skies and seascapes. He was so talented that many of the watercolors on display are more akin to watery sketches or studies for his oils than finished products, yet they are nonetheless riveting. His Burning Ship (1830) is one such work. At first it seems rough and tossed off on a whim. It probably was, but look deeply through its monochromatic exterior and you’ll see a lot going on. Similarly, his Harpooned Whale (1845) is at a glance just a wispy swirl of red, but it too is much more than initially meets the eye. Another splendid piece is Wreckers Coast of Northumberland (1836), where we see a team readying itself for what is more likely to be a salvage rather than a rescue mission. As for sea and sky, gaze upon a study of that name (1845) and you will see how Turner wrenched so many shades from somber hues. For more drama, there is Whitny (1824), with a stationary hillside castle standing in contrast to the choppy waters and leaning boats beneath the cliffs. 
Sea and Sky
Lagoon at Sunset
 The Mystic exhibit also displays a landlocked Turner. He loved architecture and travel. He produced studies of churches, Roman ruins, and other such details. Venice was a favored destination, as seen in Venice: Looking Across Lagoon at Sunset (1840) and his depiction of the famed Bridge of Sighs. Switzerland was another frequent destination. Lake Lucerne was the subject for one 1842 work; Lake Geneva for several others. Of course, he also captured his native England in works far from the sea, examples of which are Arundel Castle Upon River Arun (1824) and Sunset across the Park from the Terrace of Petworth House (1827). He even dabbled in a bit of painterly reportage in his Funeral of Sir Thomas Lawrence (1856).

Funeral of Sir Thomas...

Artist and Admirers
For all of that, one can’t help but think that the most revealing of all the works on display is his 1827 The Artist and His Admirers. A painter–himself in all likelihood–stands at his easel as a several well-dressed ladies look on. Turner loved to play the genius and one can imagine his brush stroking both paint and ego. That ego is also on display in several works whose color has drained away. They need not have done so; Turner insisted on using a carmine pigment that his contemporaries told him would fade. He assuredly knew that, but that didn’t mean he gave a fig!

Rob Weir

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