Feature Archive

Fame and the Founding Father
   J.M.W. Turner, at the Dallas Museum of Art through May 18, 2008     
   Moving to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, June 24-September 21, 2008     
By Joseph Phelan
Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army crossing the Alps
"So I am to become a nonentity, am I?" These words, attributed to the seventy-six year old Joseph Mallord William Turner on his deathbed, offer a revelatory insight into the vaulting ambition that fueled his long and controversial career. For over six decades this painter born to humble circumstances worked furiously to establish and sustain his reputation as the greatest painter in Britain. As one walks through the twelve rooms of the National Gallery's stupendous Turner exhibit, the largest of its kind ever presented in North America, one recognizes an artist whose imaginative vision and innovative techniques expanded the artistic possibilities of light and color in the nineteenth century. Turner also had a remarkable "second life" in the mid twentieth century when his late unfinished works were rediscovered by both the Abstract Expressionists and experimental filmmakers.

Turner was an unlikely candidate for the title of the greatest British painter of his age. His father was a barber and wigmaker who showed his precocious son's drawings in the window of his shop in Convent Garden. Soon after enrolling as a student at the Royal Academy in 1790, Turner recognized that garnering attention at the Academy's annual exhibition was a necessity if he was to rise from the ranks. From then on his ruling passion was inextricably bound up with the Academy's professed aim of developing a uniquely British school of painting. By 1802, at the age of twenty-six, he was elected a full Royal Academician -- the youngest member ever so admitted. Five years after this honor Turner sought out another. He became professor of perspective in which capacity he delivered a course of lectures in most years from 1811-1828. The uneducated but intellectually curious Turner took pains in his lectures to present his innovative ideas visually in diagrams. He retained a lifelong devotion to the Royal Academy describing it at one point as the "institution to which I owe everything."

Although Turner first attained distinction with his precise architectural watercolors which depicting the melancholy and picturesque ruins of grand Gothic abbeys in all their variety, he knew that he must master the more traditional art of oil painting if he was to be taken seriously. This meant accepting the Academy's hierarchy of genres in which history painting with its compelling stories derived from the Bible or ancient writers as Homer and Virgil was considered the most demanding form of art. It required both great technical skill as well as the capacity to render visually the morally edifying lessons of these books.

As we can see in the early rooms of the exhibit, Turner was amazingly quick to assimilate the techniques of the old masters such as Claude and the Dutch marine painters. He also learnt from and managed to outshine his contemporaries like John Constable. Nevertheless, he bristled at the Academy's denigration of landscape as a "mere" reproduction of appearances. His strategy was to imbue his canvases with heroic literary references and atmospheric effects that created their own sense of drama. An early example, Dolbadern Castle, North Wales (1800), reveals a theatrically back-lit castle set high up on a dark rocky terrain. In the bottom foreground two soldiers guard a bound and kneeling prisoner who represents a 13th century Welsh prince imprisoned in the castle by his brother. This scene of captivity is dwarfed by the mountain gloom and castle scene looming in the background. In order to highlight his theme of liberty and servitude Turner inserted several lines of verse (possibly authored by himself) in the original catalogue description.

Turner was not only interested in bringing his painting closer to poetry; he was also determined to invest it with the most modish ideas of contemporary philosophy. During the first decade of the nineteenth century Turner attained his status as a leading member of the British school by painting thrilling and even terrifying scenes of nature's overwhelming force and grandeur. Edmund Burke's Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1755) had popularized the notion that when viewed from a safe distance such awesome and exhilarating scenes can lead to reflections on man's insignificance in the face of a vast and indifferent universe. The churning seas and thunderous skies of his watercolors and oils gave thrilling visual form to the Sublime as Burke interpreted it.

The grand rhetorical language of the Sublime in turn became a key aspect of Turner's effort to heighten the scope of his art by allowing him to approach the kinds of universal, instructive themes that were crucial to history painting's elevated status. In Snowstorm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps (1812) the tail end of the Carthaginian army in the foreground is being picked off by local tribesmen while in the far distance a tiny figure (Hannibal?) on an elephant heads for the sunlit lowlands of Italy. All the human figures in the painting are dwarfed by the awe-inspiring setting and the overwhelming power of the snowstorm's vortex of destructive energy. We observe here for the first time the anticlassical compositional motif of the vortex to which the artist would return throughout his career. By this time, Turner was writing his own poem: "The Fallacies of Hope." From this never to be completed epic he extracted verses which pointed to the roots of Hannibal's defeat in the decline in his army's moral fiber and martial virtue resulting from their extended sojourn in the central Italian countryside.

During the first two decades of Turner's adult life Britain was constantly at war with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. The deeply patriotic painter was preoccupied with this conflict that threatened his island nation. One of the decisive battles of the Napoleonic Wars was the naval victory at Trafalgar on the coast of Spain where the British defeated the combined French and Spanish fleet. Turner's two paintings celebrating the victory dominate one of the largest rooms of the exhibit. In The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory (1806) he focuses on the moment when the victorious hero of the battle, Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson is felled by a sniper's bullet. Nelson lies on the deck of the ship left of center. A bold compositional diagonal leads toward the right top of the canvas where the smoking gun of the French marksman, positioned high in the riggings of the French ship can be seen. The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 (1823-1824), Turner's only royal commission, is a huge work akin to a scene from a spectacular Hollywood epic. Turner celebrates the victory but also shows the confusion that attends such victory in a battle at sea. Moving closer to the painting one notices in the foreground the devastating toll of the war through the desperation of the scores of men who are struggling for their lives in the waters churned by the battle action. They seem to be reaching out from the canvas in our direction as if hoping there was some chance we can come to their assistance in their terrible plight.

On an October evening in his sixtieth year, Turner witnessed the devastating fire that destroyed the Houses of Parliament -- the symbol of Britain's historical and political legacy of representative government. In dozens of sketches and watercolors some of which were surely composed on site, Turner depicted the mighty power of nature's destructive forces, a theme over which he had brooded all his life. At the same time the combination of elements involved in a great conflagration such as this where fire, water and air swirled in a maelstrom of heat and light reflected on the river appealed to Turner's deepest aesthetic sensibilities. The studies resulted in two oil paintings of the same name, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834 (1835), which presented the scene from different vantage points along the banks of the Thames. This particular exhibition marks the first time these astounding works oil and watercolor have ever been exhibited together. For this reason alone a visit is a once in a lifetime experience.

Over the decades, as Turner's work became increasingly experimental; it left more of his viewers provoked, surprised and bewildered. There was continuous controversy in the press about the rough handling of his paints, the high-keyed use of color and the obscurity of his subjects and style. Among his detractors was the essayist William Hazlitt who observed that Turner's later work consisted of "tinted steam" and were at the end of the day "paintings of nothing and very like."

But Turner was fortunate in his champions. No less an expert judge of poetry than Alfred Lord Tennyson called Turner "the Shakespeare of painting." The artist clearly encouraged such a comparison, going so far as to claim he was born on the same day as the bard of Avon. One of his most controversial late works is Juliet and her Nurse (1836), which rather than being set in Shakespeare's Verona is rather set in Turner's Venice, with its panoramic view of St. Marks. Of course anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the play and its story will recall that the whole tragedy begins with the words: "In fair Verona where we lay our scene..." The geographical error was duly noted by hostile critics, one of whom suggested this was evidence of the aging Turner's senility. This in turn aroused a young John Ruskin to write a letter in defense of Turner and his freedom to play with the locations of Shakespeare's plays in the service of his final artistic vision. The letter was in the end never sent but its contents pointed in the direction of the first volume of Ruskin's Modern Painters (1845). Here Ruskin provided a brilliant defense of the inner truthfulness of Turner's landscapes which defense when elaborated over the remaining four volumes had the effect of transforming the way in which readers in Victorian England and America approached the appreciation of fine art.

As early as the 1820's, Turner began to look ahead to his posthumous reputation by making a will in which he deeded to the nation all his unsold works. He also left instructions that several of his works were to be hung next to those of the Old Masters by which his own pieces had been inspired. One of these bequested works was Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus - Homer's Odyssey (1829). Ruskin described the painting as the central work of Turner's career and suggested that it was an allegory of the artist's victory over his critics. Ulysses stands aloft on his ship loudly mocking the one eyed Cyclops he has blinded while his men roar their approval. As is typical with Turner, the ostensible subject is dwarfed by the real subject which is the luminous aurora burning through the clouds in one of the most beautiful and magnificent sunrises in all of art. In this treatment of morning light we can see the incipient birth of the Hudson River School in America and the later rise in France of the Impressionist school of Monet and Pissarro. As is so often the case throughout his amazing career, Turner is forging a modern path while he participates fully in the great tradition of those who preceded him. By leaving his paintings to the British nation, Turner was implicitly laying his claim to be a turning point in the history of art in that his work was distinguished by both its absorption of, and improvement upon the work of his great predecessors. At the same time and despite all the attempts to view him as a romantic, Turner never lost the eighteenth-century belief in the public responsibility of art. As we see again and again in this extraordinary exhibit, for Turner painting has the potential to encompass the whole range of human experience and offer useful lessons to those with eyes to see.

  • Exhibition images and information at the Dallas Museum of Art website
  • Joseph Mallord William Turner on Artcyclopedia


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