Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 4, 2016
David Blayney Brown, Amy Concannon, and Sam Smiles, eds. J. M. W. Turner: Painting Set Free Exh. cat. Los Angeles and London: J. Paul Getty Museum in association with Tate Publishing, 2014. 256 pp.; 130 color ills. Cloth $49.95 (9781606064276)
Exhibition schedule: Tate Britain, London, September 10, 2014–January 25, 2015 (under the title Late Turner: Painting Set Free); J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, February 24–May 24, 2015; de Young, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco, June 20–September 20, 2015; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, October 31, 2015–January 31, 2016
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Joseph Mallord William Turner. Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino (1839). Oil on canvas. 36 1/8 x 48 1/4 in. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

J. M. W. Turner: Painting Set Free is the first exhibition to focus on the artist’s works produced from 1835 to 1851, from the time he was sixty years old until his death at seventy-six—the period when Turner was consciously shaping his legacy and producing the mature oils and watercolors that have so heavily influenced modern art concerned with light and color. Sam Smiles, Tate Research Fellow and associate professor of Art History and Visual Culture at the University of Exeter, took the lead in conceiving this groundbreaking exhibition of oil paintings and watercolors to promote the idea that Turner was an artist fully engaged in his own time and culture, rather than an isolated and self-absorbed forerunner of modernism.

The exhibition is innovative, and I would argue highly successful, in freeing the aging Turner from the prejudices of his contemporaries, including his leading supporter John Ruskin, and from the distorting modernist interpretations of Turner’s work that have long held sway in art history. The show’s organizers and curators build a convincing case that Turner set painting free from the artificial and stultifying limitations of the academy in order that his art might powerfully communicate complex ideas and contemporary experience.

At the Getty Center, rather than following a chronology the exhibition was divided into five sections to highlight Turner’s diverse yet highly consistent interests. The first rooms held water pictures, which Turner painted in oil on canvas from 1840 to 1846. The next section focused on Continental travel primarily to Italy and Switzerland, including a room of exquisite watercolor sample studies and finished watercolors. Oil paintings in an adjoining room focused on contemporary subjects, including The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834 (ca. 1834–35) and The Disembarkation of Louis-Philippe at the Royal Clarence Yard, Gosport, October 8, 1844 (ca. 1844–45). In addition, a series of watercolors conveyed Turner’s firsthand view of a fire in the Grand Storehouse of the Tower of London in 1841.

The Getty curators (Julian Brooks and Peter Björn Kerber) staged the final room as a coda to Turner’s art, with three pairs of square, round, or octagonal paintings, conceived by the artist as sophisticated opposites in form, color, and theme. Across the room were displayed a series of rectangular, highly finished historical and mythic landscapes, likely painted by Turner to position himself as the heir to the French Baroque landscape painter Claude Lorrain. Bringing the exhibition full circle, and substantiating the argument put forward in the catalogue by David Blayney Brown (Manton Curator of British Art, 1790–1859 at Tate Britain) that Turner’s later paintings were as much reworkings of his past paintings as they were radical departures in form and technique (33), this grouping included one of the earliest oil paintings in the show, Regulus, which Turner initially painted in 1828 and reworked just before its exhibition at the British Institution in 1837. At that last juncture, he laid in the blazing white-yellow sun, so that the painting might appear as if Turner, and by extension the painting’s viewers, were looking through the eyes of the captured Roman consul Regulus, whose eyelids had been cut away by the Carthaginians in punishment for his refusal to negotiate for the return of their prisoners held in Rome.

With 173 annotated entries for the exhibition seen in London, the catalogue is far more extensive than the 62 works that traveled to the Getty Center. It offers readers a wealth of insights about individual paintings, Turner’s motivations and methods, and his relationships with Ruskin, his dealer Thomas Griffith, faithful patrons such as Elhanan Bicknell and Munro of Novar, fellow artists, and his mistress Mrs. Booth. While the printed images may not fully capture the experience of viewing the paintings in person, I would argue that this is not the publisher’s fault, but rather is a fact of life, and one of the reasons to see art exhibitions in person. To this author, who has seen an abundance of images, the color in the catalogue appears to be well calibrated, and the resolution clear.

The catalogue opens with five essays, including a focus on the contemporary context around Turner’s late career; on evidence-based theories about Turner’s health and its possible relation to his painting (written by gerontologist Brian Livesley); on Turner’s innovative reliance on particular painting methods, materials, and motifs; on his late watercolors; and on an analysis of the ways in which the luminosity, color, and surface texture of many of his paintings have changed over time due to fugitive materials and poor restoration practices. Catalogue entries are clustered around short, highly informative essays written for the most part by Blayney Brown; Amy Concannon, assistant curator of British Art, 1790–1859, Tate Britain; and Smiles. Their expert handling of the material brings clarity to Turner’s later life and work. However, because the catalogue entries outnumber (by well over two to one) the works that traveled beyond London, and because the entries fall in an entirely different order than the paintings shown in the Getty galleries, it can be difficult and time consuming to reconcile the rich information found in the catalogue with the displayed works in California.

The organizers and curators of the exhibition effectively used one of Turner’s most accomplished and beautiful paintings, 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, exhibited in 1842, to underscore the almost absurd lengths that Turner would go to lead viewers to believe that he had experienced an event firsthand. At the Getty Center, Turner’s quote to the Reverend William Kingsley that he “got the sailors to lash [him] to the mast to observe [the storm]” was printed next to the painting, implying that Turner had in fact lived through the storm. Indeed Turner made the statement to Kingsley to substantiate the painting’s origins, yet as Smiles notes in the related catalogue entry, Turner’s exhaustive title and quote cannot be corroborated. As Smiles asserts, Turner wanted to confirm “the importance of experience to rebut those who would dismiss his pictures as fantasies” (158). Just as importantly, Turner’s paintings derive from an original blend of the artist’s vivid imagination and his desire to convey a sense of lived experience.

Despite their different emphasis and organization, the traveling exhibition and catalogue bring to life Turner’s strategies for promoting his art with private donors and for displaying his prodigious painting skill to the public and his fellow painters. For example, Turner’s habit of laying in many of the details of his oil paintings and finishing works during the varnishing days at the British Academy and British Institution is richly illustrated in William Parrott’s oil painting on panel, Turner on Varnishing Day (ca. 1840; exhibited only in London), and its associated catalogue entry (70). In similar fashion, at the Getty Center, the placard accompanying Turner’s unfinished painting Sunrise, with a Boat between Headlands (ca. 1840–45) explained how works in this half-done state were taken to the Royal Academy, where Turner added representational elements and local color. Details about Turner’s use of rags, medium modifiers, glazes, and impasto in this process were relayed in the exhibition’s signage and in the catalogue’s essays and entries. Through these and other illustrative examples such as the completed painting The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834, present-day viewers can gain a real sense of Turner’s painting methods and the level of finish he associated with complete works. It becomes clear that Turner’s most apparently “modern” and “abstract” works were often incomplete in his estimation.

Viewers of the exhibition also can grasp Turner’s new business model in the 1840s of painting watercolor sample studies—a strategy he adopted in association with Griffith to entice a select group of collectors to buy finished larger works featuring the same motif. An entire room at the Getty was devoted to these sample studies and four more highly finished watercolors, painted either for speculative sale, or in the case of Longships Lighthouse, Land’s End (ca. 1835), as the original for a print series. Related placards deftly described Turner’s purpose in creating these works, the differences between samples and fully executed watercolors, and his dismay over the prices he could garner for these small yet masterful watercolors and gouaches.

Although the opening signage for the Getty exhibition was hyperbolic—the “audacious” and “innovative” Turner was one of the “most influential painters of nature who ever lived”—the artworks were chosen and placed so that attentive viewers might glean subtle and enduring lessons. The section focused on Turner’s Continental travels opened with the highly detailed oil painting on canvas, The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of the Europa, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1842. As Smiles notes in the catalogue entry for the painting, this view from the hotel Europa was nearly “guaranteed a success” with patrons and critics (114). Not only was it painted with a clarity of vision reminiscent of Canaletto, the Dogana (or Customs House) was a symbol of Venice’s mercantile might in its heyday, and Turner’s vantage point from the impressive Europa hotel allowed for a spectacular view of the city’s major tourist attractions. One of the implied messages of the exhibition was that Turner could readily accomplish the high level of specificity and finish appreciated by his critics and the public, but in his old age he more often than not willfully chose not to do so.

Together, the catalogue and exhibition accomplish their goal of recuperating Turner from the criticisms of his contemporary naysayers and biographers, from Ruskin’s overbearing opinions, and from modern interpretations that have set him apart from his lived experience. For anyone interested in a nuanced reading of Turner’s methods and art, which takes into account his circumstances late in life, there are many lasting benefits of this groundbreaking show.

Susan M. King
Lecturer, Department of Art History, Loyola Marymount University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.