The Painter of Light

March 18th, 2012  |  Published in *, March 2012


Folkestone, Kent, about 1822, watercolor on paper. Bequest of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Phelps Taft, 1931.385

Sinton Gallery, Taft Museum of Art

February 10 to April 15 2012

Even compared with our contemporary view of art, J.M.W. Turner was an extraordinary talent.  Accepted at the Royal Academy in London at age 14, often deliberately irascible, flaunting his cockney background at hopeful moneyed patrons, and justifiably confident of his value, he became an art force to be reckoned with in a time and place rife with artists, most of whom were born to more well-heeled backgrounds.

His ten watercolors currently making their annual display at the Taft Museum speak volumes about his work and times.  Intended to be transformed into engravings illustrating books, Turner created them on inexpensive acidic paper, now slowly disintegrating with time.  Their rare exposures  (dimly lit) are balanced with the remainder of the year spent in total darkness for conservation purposes.

Kudos to assistant curator Tamera Lenz Muente and the museum for the extra-interest display featuring glass cases exhibiting books and plates replicating the original paintings. It’s interesting to note that some of the engravings are remarkable in their Turner-esque atmospheric style, while others fall short with too much attention to subject matter.  One must assume talent is also involved in the lesser appreciated endeavors of the engravers.  “Lake Nemi” an artists’ favorite (also featured as a painting in the recent George Inness exhibit), more softly depicted than many paintings here, was very successfully engraved, as was “Folkstone, Kent”.  His initial images from which the plates were derived were included in some of the most famous authors’ books of the day, mostly poets   whose gentle words fit the airy  vision of the artist.

In addition to the inevitable topiary trees and limitless skies, Turner was drawn to contrasting themes.  Groups of fishermen, spectators, people engaged in activities indigenous to the rendered areas are used to point up the immensity of the landscape. Cliffs, particularly, become more positive heights when compared to tiny boats and people.  This ploy works especially well in “Folkstone, Kent”.  Smugglers are seen in the left foreground burying their loot at the foot of a seaside cliff, while, to further emphasize the perspective, a tiny village fades away on the right, creating the illusion of distance.

Feathery topiaries  were Turner’s weapon of choice to serve as stoppers on the vertical edges of landscapes.  Their wispy leaves became the favored style of greenery of the time, based on the paintings of Claude Lorrain, French, 17th century.  This style of landscapes can also be noted in Gainsborough’s  backgrounds and later life landscapes, yet everything about Turner inevitably returns to skies.  Vast, sweeping space, filled with moving air and light, truly dominates.  When Turner began taking his sketch books abroad for on site studies, he became interested in the sea, another tough subject, which eventually took second place to his skies.  Perhaps the best examples of both attractions  are seen in the Turner paintings, “The Trout Stream” and “Europa and the Bull” in the Taft permanent collection.  Yet, these little watercolors match their ambiance masterfully.

Each annual showing of these treasures brings a formidable troop of admirers back to the Taft.  Some track the date diligently, requesting information of upcoming calendars to assure their attendance. While much of Turner’s work on paper was destroyed in a Thames River flood while stored in the basement of the British Museum, there are still thousands of drawings and works on paper remaining in the Tate Museum’s  Clore Gallery collection.

Since Turner did not finish his watercolors on site, “The Valley of Chamonix”, labeled “Chamouni” by Turner, is a small miracle.  His usual method of working was to use pencil sketches with color notations written in, later expanding to a full watercolor piece. This colorful accomplishment (my personal favorite) is a rush of cold, glowing Swiss mountainside. Here Turner has captured the wind, and warmed the harsh mountain with his choice of pigments and their arrangement.  Composition was another of Turner’s talents.  While critics were known to disagree with Turner’s lack of concrete subject matter, those wondrous swirls were guiding the collectors’ eyes subconsciously in the paths he chose.  The fast moving air in “Chamonix” balances the obvious diagonal created by the mountain, and both rather disguise the true subject of the painting, the Mer de Glace, or glacier.  The site must have truly fascinated Turner.  He created three of this scene for a patron, Walter Fawkes, and more exist in at least two  other museums. Turner’s background may be responsible for his casual attention to quality materials whose ultimate purpose was to be reproduced as engravings.  Being an artist in the 19th century was truly a matter of the bottom line.  “Day jobs” were not an option, nor in his case, was family financing. The path of his career from being displayed in the window of his father’s wig and barber shop, to his acceptance in the Royal Academy at the age of 14, to his acknowledged position as a highly regarded and sought-after artist throughout his life is one of the great “rags to riches” tales in history.

Tip: The Taft has the best  wall didactics accompanying its exhibits. They are concise, full of complete explanations, and on the money. Learn while you look.

–Fran Watson

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