The Thames above Waterloo Bridge, ca. 1835-40,
The Thames above Waterloo Bridge detail
In this painting, there is a briefly sketched image of a manned boat with oars; it is in the lower right of the painting. It is clear that there is an unfinished portion in this painting.
(I recommend clicking on the images to enlarge them in order to see more of the detail.)
Sun Setting Over a Lake, ca. 1840,
But then there's a painting such as this, which to our 21st century eyes looks quite complete and balanced: a dense saturated red with a bright spot holding its center is surrounded by lighter grays, all seeming to swirl around that intense light. What more could he have added? Some of his contemporaries, however, "accused Turner of extravagance and exaggeration, outdoing each other with comparisons of his pictures to lobster salad, soapsuds and whitewash, beetroot or mustard..." (quote from the Turner link above)
Sun Setting Over a Lake detail
Turner applied paint with tremendous freedom. This detail reminds me of Philip Guston's abstract paintings.
Margate From the Sea, ca. 1835-40
The luminosity of the paintings comes from a deep understanding of color and contrast: the light glows as though the canvas is lit from behind. Another painter of the 1950s that this brings to mind is Mark Rothko who also had a subtle control of light and color, and whose canvases also glowed. I chose to show images of Turner's paintings with the frames included because the contrast brings out their light; I felt that having the paintings against a white page removed some of their drama.
Margate From the Sea detail
In this detail you can see how Turner layered the paint, as though he was physically creating space.
Rough Sea, ca. 1840-45,
Rough Sea dissolves into turbulent paint into light, the paint becoming the thing. Seeing the painting flattened as a small image on a screen doesn't give the viewer a true sense of its dynamic presence.
Rough Sea detail
Turner plays with paint in a very open way, as though his subject is only a useful pretext. Though of course, this painting may indeed be unfinished, with Turner planning to add a ship tossing on the sea. With our modern sensibility, though, it looks done.
Sunset from the Top of the Rigi, ca. 1844
This light filled, delicate canvas is based on a view from Mount Rigi in the Swiss Alps. Of all the paintings I've shown, this one might seem to be the most unfinished because of its minimal handling and close tonality. But according to the Met's label it was finished and offered to a collector, but it was rejected. I suppose that a painting made in 1844 but looking like it was made in 1954 was too much for a collector to handle. Sunset was part of the Turner bequest but it was not seen by the public until 1974, when it was shown at a bicentennial celebration of Turner's birth at the Royal Academy.
Sunset from the Top of the Rigi detail
When I see these paintings I wonder how Turner did it; how did he make this imaginative leap into a different kind of painting? John Constable, another English landscape painter, lived at the same time as Turner and he too made some quite wild paintings at the end of his life, with white paint flying, standing in for light; but Constable kept a tight grasp on his subjects. England does produce some eccentric artists: Richard Dadd, Samuel Palmer, William Blake, and in the 20th century Stanley Spencer, which makes me think there is something there that allows for unusual approaches. Turner was certainly a unique genius, a master of color and light who made paintings that were far ahead of his time.