J.M.W. Turner’s poetic visualization of British history

Turner has arrived in New York. In The New Yorker, back in September, when the exhibition was opening at the National Gallery, Simon Schama wrote an engaging article about Turner’s critical reception during his own time. “Poor old Turner: one minute the critics were singing his praises, the next they were berating him for being senile or infantile, or both. No great painter suffered as much from excesses of adulation and execration, sometimes for the same painting. ‘Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying�Typhon Coming On’ had, on its appearance at the Royal Academy, in 1840, been mocked by the reviewers as ‘the contents of a spittoon,’ a ‘gross outrage to nature,’ and so on. The critic of the Times thought the seven pictures�including ‘Slavers’�that Turner sent to the Royal Academy that year were such ‘detestable absurdities’ that ‘it is surprising the [selection] committee have suffered their walls to be disgraced with the dotage of his experiments.’ John Ruskin, who had been given ‘Slavers’ by his father and had appointed himself Turner�s paladin, not only went overboard in praise of his hero but drowned in the ocean of his own hyperbole. In the first edition of ‘Modern Painters’ (1843), Ruskin, then all of twenty-four, sternly informed the hacks that ‘their duty is not to pronounce opinions upon the work of a man who has walked with nature threescore years; but to impress upon the public the respect with which they [the works] are to be received.’

“The reasons for both the sanctification and the denunciation were more or less the same: Turner�s preference for poetic atmospherics over narrative clarity, his infatuation with the operation of light rather than with the objects it illuminated. His love affair with gauzy obscurity, his resistance to customary definitions of contour and line, his shameless rejoicing in the mucky density of oils or in the wayward leaks and bleeds of watercolors�these were condemned as reprehensible self-indulgence. Sir George Beaumont, collector, patron, and, as he supposed, arbiter of British taste, complained noisily of Turner�s ‘vicious practice’ and dismissed his handling of the paint surface as ‘comparatively, blots.’ The caustic essayist William Hazlitt was especially troubled by Turner�s relish of visual ambiguity: the sharp line melting into the swimming ether. Contrary to Ruskin, Hazlitt thought it was unseemly for Turner to fancy himself playing God, reprising the primordial flux of Creation. Someone, Hazlitt commented, had said that his landscapes ‘were pictures of nothing and very like.'” Read more.

In 1966 the Museum of Modern Art installed �Turner: Imagination and Reality.” Curator Lawrence Gowing spoke with Calvin Tomkins and Geoffrey T. Hellman in The Talk of the Town. �’All but four of the oils were selected from the work Turner did in the last twenty years of his life, in order to show the revolutionary aspect of a period in which he developed a new consistency of painting that eliminated linear draftsmanship and classical composition and glorified light and shade. During this time, he demolished the separate categories of classic and romantic, and so on. The work is very structural, with lots of tension in it. It�s not just a prototype of American abstract painting, as has sometimes been said, though it certainly is that. The situation is much more complex. Although structural, the pictures are very informal and very free at the same time. They reach out into the borderland between representation and the abstract. A unique achievement.'”Read more.

Roberta Smith: “The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s ‘J. M. W. Turner’is a beast of a show. With nearly 150 works in oil and watercolor spanning more than half a century, it will either win you over or wear you out. Or it will alternate, gallery by gallery, or wall by wall, as the art swings between overblown and moving, inspired and mechanical.” Read more.

Linda Yablonsky: “Incredibly, this most dependable of cultural institutions seems to have miscalculated the deadening impact of laying out 140 similar paintings and drawings with little variation or context. The show serves up a Johnny One-Note whose brilliance was undermined by an aversion to experiment. ” Read more.

“J.M.W. Turner,” The Metropolitan Museum, New York, NY. Through Sept. 21.

“J.M.W. Turner,”National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Oct. 1-Jan. 6, 2008. See images of Turner paintings from the National Gallery’s collection.


  1. Ruskin’s stewardship of Turner’s reputation also extended to (notoriously) destroying HUNDREDS of JMWT’s private – probably erotic – nudes, as executor (executioner would have been more apt) of the artist’s estate.

    Much as I admire Turner, I think there can be too much of a good thing. Shows like this get compiled as blockbusters – it has to have 140 works, so they can charge a lot – not whether or not it makes for a comfortable or edifying exhibition.

    But then I always found The Turner Wing at The Tate quite exhausting as well. He was not an especially versatile artist, and while his technique and approach to perspective and landscape are superb, I find they are often seen to advantage against contemporaries or historical mixes, or in short burst.

    This is not unusual. I think the same about Bacon and William Blake as well.

    It’s a great shame we’ll never know what Turner’s figure-centered works were like, probably indifferent, but intriguing given his preference for displaying distance from them, throughout his landscapes.

  2. Whatever Turner painted, you can see the fantastic use of light.
    It is so magnificent.

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