'To Stun the Soul': J. M. W. Turner at the Met

By O'Donovan, Leo J. | Commonweal, August 15, 2008 | Go to article overview

'To Stun the Soul': J. M. W. Turner at the Met


O'Donovan, Leo J., Commonweal


We do not see light itself, but without it we see nothing at all. People speak of the golden light of Venice, the pale blue of Madrid, or the silver sheen of Cape Cod in September. What they are remembering is atmosphere illumined--the particular range of color in a cityscape or landscape. Light reveals the gift of the world to us and so, from the earliest Greek philosophers through Augustine and Pseu-do-Dionysius, light has been associated with the divine. When Suger of St. Denis flooded the choir of his abbey church in 1144 with the light of stained glass, he inaugurated what was then known as opus modernum and only later, at first disparagingly, as Gothic.

Shortly before his death, the English Romantic artist J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) is reported to have said, "The sun is God." First exhibited in 1906, his luminous late paintings are recognized today as forerunners of modernism. Their dazzling colors and abstract themes appeal to a sensibility reared on Monet, the postimpressionists, Rothko, Pollock, and de Kooning. But these paintings, for all their mysterious appeal, are in fact unfinished works.

What of the whole artist? The magnificent exhibition "J. M. W. Turner," now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through September 21 (after triumphant visits to Dallas and Washington, D.C.), offers him to us in some 150 works--half watercolors, half oils--86 of which are on loan from the Tate Britain. (One misses only his prints.) It is the first retrospective of the artist in America in forty years, and the largest ever here.

Turner was born in London's Covent Garden, the son of a wigmaker, on whom he depended greatly until the devoted man's death in 1829. His mother was mentally unstable and died at a young age in an asylum. The son's bravura talent enabled him to exhibit as early as 1790 at the Royal Academy, where he was made an associate in 1799 and three years later a full academician. Gifted also with an acute business sense, Turner was, for many years, immensely successful. But as his forms became ever more diffuse, the number of his hostile critics multiplied--despite the mighty defense of the most influential of them all, John Ruskin (1819-1900). It did not help that Turner became increasingly eccentric and careless about his personal appearance. (As early as 1813, his rival John Constable [1776-1837] wrote, "He is uncouth but has a wonderful range of mind.") In late life his reputation declined, and he died in relative obscurity.

The young artist first made his reputation with topographical watercolors based on trips to Wales and Scotland and then with marine subjects such as Fishermen at Sea (1796), his first oil exhibited at the Royal Academy. The aesthetics of the time prized the picturesque and the sublime, as this was defined in Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757). Turner had a natural affinity for landscape that produced the astonishment and terror of which Burke wrote, and he determined to establish that subject on an equal footing with history painting. Claude Lorrain (c. 1600-82) became the classical model for his project. Turner opened his own gallery in London in 1804, and he became famous for finishing canvases on the spot at the Varnishing Days that preceded Royal Academy openings, adding last-minute dramatic details to compete with rivals like Constable.

Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps (1812, see page 24), shown for the first time in the United States, is the high point of Turner's early career--and a grand, transitional example of a painting meant, as Burke put it, "to stun the soul." A high sun barely burns through a tumultuous dark sky in two-thirds of the painting to the right, while a burst of white light to the left reveals the Alps in the distance. Only gradually does the viewer discern the skirmish taking place between the Carthaginians and some local tribesmen, with Hannibal on his elephant barely visible in the low middle horizon. …

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