The Turner at the Met is a bear of a show—165 items, mostly oils and watercolors, with a few prints—and the other patrons on the day of my perambulation staggered from the final chamber into the gift shop’s welcoming arms as if after a tussle in a cave. Turner cannot be dismissed, but he cannot quite be embraced, either. Ian Warrell says in his catalog essay “J.M.W. Turner and the Pursuit of Fame”:
Few other British artists before, or since, have generated such wildly diverse responses to their work during their lifetimes or have continued to provoke such fervent debate.
His contemporaries did agree that he was personally unprepossessing; one associate admitted that “at first sight Turner gave one the notion of a mean-looking little man,” while another remarked that “this man must be loved for his works; for his person is not striking.” John Constable said after encountering the man, a year older than he and much quicker to achieve success, “I always expected to find him what I did—he is uncouth but has a wonderfull range of mind.” Turner failed to look like a great painter, but no one, certainly no other British landscape artist, aspired to greatness more nakedly, with so uninterrupted a productivity and uninhibited an adventurousness.
In the century and half since Turner’s death in 1851, evolving taste has reversed the debate over his merits: it is the later, nearly abstract paintings that win our hearts, though contemporary criticism waxed sardonic in their dispraise, and the earlier works that won him wealth and fame—mythologically tinged landscapes and scenic renderings of ships, castles, Alps, and English country homes—repel us with their brownish pomp. They seem so melodramatic, so fusty, so hard-working, so grande galerie, while some of the canvases (Europa and the Bull; Norham Castle, Sunrise, both circa 1845), to which his brush condescended with a few cryptic dabbles and golden smears, impress us as thrillingly minimal and airy. When these unsold, never-exhibited portions of the immense Turner Bequest left to the Tate were first put on public view in 1906, one critic exclaimed, “We have never seen Turner before!” Another wrote analytically, “Turner in his latest development, more than any artist who had gone before him, painted not so much the objects he saw as the light which played around them.”
Yet the predilections that make Turner special, and even peculiar, were there from the start. He was the artistically precocious son of a Covent Garden barber and a mother who, after leading her husband “a sad life,” was committed to Bethlehem Hospital for the insane, popularly called “Bedlam,” in 1800, when she was sixty-one and her only son, known in the household as William, was twenty-five.1 Since the age of twelve he had been turning out architectural drawings and hand-coloring prints for a nearby engraver; some of his early drawings were sold in his father’s shop, “ticketed at prices varying from one shilling to three.” At the age of fourteen, he was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools, which offered free training for artists and was housed five minutes’ walk from his home. Although John Ruskin, Turner’s great champion, thought that “Turner, having suffered under the instruction of the Royal Academy, had to pass nearly thirty years of his life in recovering from the consequences,” the boy’s education fixed his attention upon the Royal Academy as the key to respectability as an English artist; he submitted his work to its annual exhibits, and from 1790, when he was fifteen, his watercolors were accepted for display.
His first oil to be exhibited there—in 1796, when he was just twenty-one—was titled Fishermen at Sea; it hangs in the show at the Met, and is something of a miracle. A full moon hangs in a gap of fragmenting dark clouds; its light is reflected on the water below, where a masted fishing boat, with its crew, tilts on a wave. White edges of moonlit foam, delicate as lace, define an oval of momentarily concave water rendered with an avid fidelity to its mixture of shadow and translucence; this liquid bowl of moonlight and the heave of wave creating it portend Turner’s lifelong obsession, to the point of enraptured obscurity, with light in its ephemeral impressions. Off to the left, dim rocks, and, on the right, a second, shadowy but solidly anatomized boat and, sunk still more deeply in darkness, a white bird on a bobbing barrel testify to the painter’s early fascination with the imperfectly seen.
His boyhood interest was in architecture, and several large watercolors in the exhibition’s first room impeccably delineate the ruins of Tintern Abbey and the interior of Salisbury Cathedral. His architectural precision, like a fossil tidily preserved in a tumbled geology, persists even into Turner’s most boldly dissolved impressions—for instance, the masts and yards and tipped-up dories of the two Whalers oils (exhibited in 1845 and 1846 at the Royal Academy)2 ; the little village in the lower left-hand corner of the otherwise hazy watercolor Lake Lucerne (1842); the cathedral architecture deftly sketched into the washes of Eu: The Church of Notre-Dame and St Laurent, with the Château of Louis-Philippe beyond (1845); and, with less haste, the water-carved gneiss in The Pass of St Gotthard, near Faido (1843), commissioned by John Ruskin and polished to perfection for this connoisseur of geology.
The paintings, as the decades and the exhibition rooms unfold, fluctuate; moods of elemental daring alternate with oppressively academic productions. Turner’s uncouth ambition included eclectically outdoing other painters at their game. Not only did Fishermen at Sea emulate, according to the catalog, the eighteenth-century styles of Vernet, Joseph Wright of Derby, and Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, but it led, in five years, to “an ambitious response to Willem Van de Velde the Younger’s Dutch Shipping Offshore in a Rising Gale (c. 1672)” called Dutch Boats in Gale (1801), which was described by Benjamin West, then president of the Royal Academy, as “what Rembrandt thought of but could not do.”
The canvas given what must be the longest title on record—The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire—Rome being determined on the Overthrow of Her Hated Rival, demanded from her such Terms as might either force her into War, or ruin her by Compliance: the Enervated Carthaginians, in their Anxiety for Peace, consented to give up even their Arms and their Children (exh. RA 1817)—reflects, according to the catalog, “the unmistakable style of Claude Lorrain,” especially “Claude’s masterpiece, Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba” (1648). Turner’s determination to consolidate a distinctive British style left few Continental predecessors unassimilated. Unmarried, reclusive, he traveled widely (standard working procedure for painters of the time), and every new territory brought with it the ghosts of rivals to subdue.
Venice evoked, the catalog states, “well-known paintings by Titian, Tintoretto and especially Canaletto”; Turner’s Venice: The Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore (exh. RA 1834) “was explicitly couched in the style of Canaletto (even introducing an incidental portrait of the artist at work).” It and its companion, Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute (exh. RA 1835), display a lighter, sunnier, blue-and-white palette rare for Turner, along with an instinctive clarity in delineating the Grand Canal’s palatial shores.
By the time of the two Venetian watercolors from 1840 also on view at the Met, his mature touch fudges all but the broadest outlines, and a sunset yellow tinges the smoky atmosphere. Even an early, Poussinesque exercise in the highly valued mode of the historical sublime, The Tenth Plague of Egypt (exh. RA 1802), has idiosyncratic atmospherics: the unEgyptian city in the middle distance is oddly shadowless and two-dimensional, while nearer to hand an inky cloud swallows the un-Egyptian hillside and seizes all the drama from the God-stricken small figures in the foreground.
The human population in Turner’s large canvases is rarely more than a footnote, a spatter of colored jelly beans at the base of a mountain or a metropolis. He stood aside from the distinguished British tradition of portrait-painting, once he had executed the fine youthful self-portrait of 1798–1800 (see illustration on page 16). A certain caricatural verve can be noticed in the visual anecdotes of The Northampton Election, 6 December 1830 (circa 1830–1831), of Dartmouth Cove, with Sailor’s Wedding (circa 1825), and of View of London from Greenwich (circa 1825), but the boneless and vapid central figures of The Bay of Baiae, with Apollo and the Sibyl (exh. RA 1823) contribute no focus or weight to the sundry elements of this idealization of an Italian bathing spot. SPLENDIDE MENDAX—a “splendid lie”—a friend wrote on the frame, and Turner allowed the verdict to stay. The figures in early picturesque works like Fall of the Rhine, Schaffhausen (exh. RA 1806) and Fishmarket on the Sands—possibly at Hastings (circa 1810) were seriously worked at, but if one takes the opportunity, which the museum has provided, to compare Géricault’s sensational The Raft of the Medusa (1819) with Turner’s boiling, sketchy raftful of victims in Disaster at Sea (circa 1833–1835), one appreciates the vastly more intelligible human drama that Géricault staged. In Turner’s tableau the only actor is the furious ocean.
Not only do his human figures in general lack psychological presence, they lack physical mass, such as another celebrant of impersonal force, Winslow Homer, was able to integrate with ocean and atmosphere—for example, the half-drowned belles of Undertow (1886) and the slickered, silhouetted fishermen of The Herring Net (1885). The heroes of some large Turner canvases are curiously difficult to locate; the blinded Cyclops in Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus—Homer’s Odyssey (exh. RA 1829) merges with cliffs and clouds; the dying Nelson in The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory (1808) is reduced to an easily overlooked dwarf wearing a comical grimace; and I couldn’t find Nelson at all in Turner’s largest painting ever, The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 (1823– 1824), wherein near-naked navvies desperately compete for lifeboat space under a titanic outlay of billowing sails. Turner didn’t see human beings as worth much in the balance of things; of his terrifying The Shipwreck (1805), the catalog comments, “The almost absurd futility of the figures’ efforts to save themselves in the face of these forces is thus a crucial aspect of the painting’s sublimity.” The viewer encountering Fall of the Rhine, Schaffhausen on its wall at the Met cringes under the torrent of onrushing white water, which seems certain to engulf the colorful little human caravan beneath it.
Slathering on white pigment with a palette knife, working sections of wet canvas with his fingers, Turner early was criticized for (apropos of Fall of the Rhine) “negligence and coarseness” and (in relation to 1827’s mellow Mortlake Terrace, the Seat of William Moffatt, Esq.; Summer’s Evening) the “yellow fever” of his coloring, which a critic likened to the cuisine of a cook with a mania for curry powder. This painting contains, as an added ingredient, the pasted-on silhouette of a black dog; it had begun to peel off by Varnishing Day and had to be re-affixed. On this day, or days, the artists represented in the annual Royal Academy show were given the privilege of adding final touches to paintings already hung on the walls; Turner was notorious for creating a work from near scratch, that is, from one of the unfinished paintings that crammed his studio. His headlong virtuoso performances on these last-minute varnishing days became a semipublic spectacle. One witness recalled him “standing all day” wearing
an old, tall beaver hat, worn rather off his forehead, which added much to his look of a North Sea pilot…. His colours were mostly in powder, and he mixed them with turpentine, sometimes with size, and water, and perhaps even with stale beer.
Another witness, as early as 1803, saw him “spit all over his picture, and, then taking out a box of brown powder [presumably snuff], rubbed it all over the picture.”
When a paint supplier, unhappy at the fugitive colors Turner was buying, sought to advise him otherwise, he was told, “Your business, Winsor, is to make colours for Artists. Mine is to use them.” The results of his use, like those of his American admirer Alfred Ryder, were canvases whose unstable, cracked, and sunken surfaces Ruskin himself, Turner’s champion, deplored:
No picture of Turner’s is seen in perfection a month after it is painted…. The fact of his using means so imperfect, together with that of his utter neglect of the pictures in his own gallery, are a phenomenon in human mind which appears to me utterly inexplicable.
The improvisatory extent of his methods on varnishing days, expanding and deepening paintings with no model or sketches before him, helps explain the apparent wide gap between some of his masterworks and any recognizable visual phenomenon. Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (exh. RA 1812) shows no snow and only the murkiest signs of an army; a tiny silhouette of an elephant pays faint homage to Livy’s historical account, while a sort of gray waterspout swallows most indications of the Alps. In The Field of Waterloo (exh. RA 1818), a spectral white flare in the sky illuminates what appears to be a colorful harem sleeping intertwined; the sight is clarified by lines of Byron that Turner inserted in his catalog:
The earth is covered thick with other clay
Which her own clay shall cover, heaped and pent,
Rider and horse—friend, foe, in one red burial blent!
But no poetry helps us out with Snow-Storm, Avalanche and Inundation—a Scene in the Upper Part of the Val d’Aouste, Piedmont (exh. RA 1837). A giant curve of indeterminate color enclosing some dabbled white diagonals and more luminous smears can be an avalanche or storm—take your pick—as it crowds some hapless figures into the lower-right corner of the picture. (A reviewer for the London Athenaeum warned, “To speak of these works as pictures, would be an abuse of language.”) Ruskin’s Modern Painters called it one of Turner’s “mightiest works.”
The wall commentary at the Metropolitan puts it that Turner went from the picturesque to the sublime—the sublime, here as in the next century’s Abstract Expressionism, involved large canvases, abstraction, and a visionary subjectivity. Though he employed his sketchbook tirelessly, and pioneered plein air painting on a series of wooden panels of Thames scenery, he was a studio painter, concocting visions out of remembered weather. The semicircular arcs and arbitrary bursts of tint in Turner’s last paintings feel spun almost entirely out of himself. An ultimate of this fearless approach is 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 (exh. RA 1842). By his own verbal account the painter had himself lashed to the mast for four hours. He said:
I did not paint it to be understood, but I wished to show what such a scene was like…. I did not expect to escape, but I felt bound to record it if I did. But no one had any business to like the picture.
Other startlingly fresh fruits of such defiant willfulness were Rain, Steam and Speed—the Great Western Railway (exh. RA 1844), which is not in the show, and Staffa, Fingal’s Cave (exh. RA 1832) and Peace—Burial at Sea (exh. RA 1842), which are. When the sails on the ship central in the latter were criticized as being unrealistically black, he replied, “I only wish I had any colour to make them blacker.” Not that his mood always gravitated to darkness. His series of Deluge paintings in the 1840s featured incandescent skies; in Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory)—the Morning after the Deluge—Moses Writing the Book of Genesis (exh. RA 1843), the sun’s glare has become a heavenly circle studded with barely brushed multitudes. Goethe’s theory, set out in a new English translation of Zur Farbenlehre in 1840, interested Turner with its idea, as Bailey’s biography puts it, “of a circle of colours in which reds, yellows and greens had to do with warmth and happiness, and blues, blue-greens and purples prompted ‘restless, susceptible, anxious impressions.'” Immaterial arcs and tinted veils haunt his late impressions.
As the painter aged, and his productions became more eccentric, there was speculation in the press about both his sanity and his eyesight—one critic pronounced his work to be “the fruits of a diseased eye and a reckless hand.” A Lady Eastlake reported, “Every object he saw, as he himself told us, was outlined to his vision in prismatic colour.” Domes of light dominate his Claudean harbors: the moon casts a glow one commentator called “neither night nor day” in Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight (exh. RA 1835). Regulus (see illustration on page 14), exhibited in Rome in 1828 and reworked for a London exhibit in 1837, was based by Turner upon the haunting legend of a Roman general whom his Carthaginian captors tortured by cutting off his eyelids and exposing him to the sun; the painting burns into the viewer’s eyes with an empyrean of solid gold and its reflection in rippled water. Turner in fact did not go blind; it was the sardonic critics, instead, who were blind, blind to the obstinately questing quality in Turner that showed other artists a way to the future, where what were scoffingly called “pictures of nothing” were pictures of the truth.