Capturing vibrant bursts of light and water

Romantic images from the imagination of 19th-century painter J.M.W. Turner helped him lay the groundwork for impressionists who would follow.

February 17, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Exhibit

What:Reflections of Sea and Light: Paintings and Watercolors by J.M.W. Turner from Tate

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive

When: Wednesdays-Fridays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Admission: $7 most adults; $5 senior citizens and students

Call: 410-396-7100

For a 19th century English romantic landscape painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner seems almost modern. His imagination turned paint into an expression of the restless spirit of Romanticism, and made him an avatar of both Impressionism and the modern era that would follow.

This is perhaps one reason why Turner still speaks so powerfully to us today - as is evidenced in "Reflections of Sea and Light: Paintings and Watercolors by J.M.W. Turner from Tate," the impressive new show at the Baltimore Museum of Art that runs through May 26.

Through skillful use of color effects and spatial illusion, Turner was able to represent his most intimate thoughts and feelings directly in paint. No wonder the abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko, on seeing Turner's watercolor sketches for the first time in 1964, allegedly remarked, "that fellow obviously learned a lot from me."

The direction that Turner took was in sharp contrast to his contemporary, John Constable, the other great master of 19th-century English Romantic landscape painting. Though the two knew and even admired each other's work, they could hardly have been more different.

Constable loved the domesticated rural English countryside of his youth, which he rendered through close factual observation, avoiding dramatic flourishes and imaginative flights of fancy. His homey, affectionate landscapes epitomized what his contemporaries called the picturesque - the taste for familiar, pleasant scenes of ordinary life.

A world magically transformed

Turner took the picturesque as his starting point. But as his art matured, it more and more turned to the sublime, evoking the exceptional, awe-inspiring and terrifying aspects of nature beside which human concerns are reduced to insignificance.

Where Constable's art was largely a direct response to what he observed in nature, Turner presents us with a world magically transformed through the imagination. The vast vista of sea and sky was a metaphor for a universal power and grandeur that provided him with an inexhaustible source of inspiration.

This exhibit, consisting of some 100 of Turner's works, was bequeathed by the artist to the British nation after his death, and now is in the collection of the London's Tate museum. This is a brilliant show that offers one of the few opportunities in recent memory to examine Turner's place in history on the basis of the voluminous archive of drawings and sketches that became known only after the artist's death. Many of his watercolor sketches, in particular, are characterized by simple, broad swathes of color reminiscent of such abstract expressionists as Rothko, Clyfford Still and Helen Frankenthaler. (Curiously, the resemblance makes Turner's sketches look more modern than they actually are, because we've learned from later artists to see his academic designs in terms of contemporary abstraction.)

Painting taught a moral lesson

Turner was born in 1775, and early on demonstrated a prodigious artistic talent. By the time he was 10, he was hand-coloring prints by other artists, which along with his own drawings were displayed for sale in his father's barbershop. He entered the school of the Royal Academy, the only place where an artist of his time could achieve fame or reputation, when he was just 15, and by 1799 he had became an associate member of the academy. Three yeas later he was elected a full academician.

During these years, his greatest influences were the classical landscape paintings of the 17th-century French artist Claude Lorrain and such Dutch landscape painters as Jacob van Ruisdael, whose brooding, imaginatively-charged scenes of medieval ruins amid the vast impersonality of natural forces helped inspire the Romantic concept of the sublime a century later.

As a member of the Royal Academy, Turner accepted the convention that the purpose of painting was to impart a moral lesson to the viewer, and that history-painting occupied a higher place than landscape in the official hierarchy of subjects.

Nevertheless, he sought to elevate landscape by imbuing it with moral meaning, while also experimenting with the alternative media of watercolor and printmaking. Indeed, during his lifetime, most people knew Turner's work through his large finished watercolors, which he exhibited for a time in the annual salon shows alongside his oil paintings.

Turner also derived a significant portion of his income from the many printed engravings of his watercolors, whose production was carried out by skilled printers under the artist's supervision, and from his engraved illustrations for books, many of which were designed to accompany the works of contemporary Romantic poets.

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