April 19, 2016

JMW Turner's Leap into Modernism

The Thames above Waterloo Bridge, ca. 1835-40,

Paint becomes atmosphere and light; land and water dissolve into a fluid presence. Joseph Mallord William Turner's late paintings are beautifully expansive, with open paint handling that comes close to eradicating image and leaving just painted light. In the current exhibition, Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible at the Met Breuer, are five of these paintings, hung together in a small room. They were part of the Turner Bequest, in which he left 300 paintings and 30,000 sketches and watercolors to the British nation. Many of the paintings in this bequest stayed in storage for years, not shown in public, such as these, some of which are assumed to be unfinished.

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.


  1. Last year I listened to Turner scholar Andrew Wilton give a talk on Turner and his influence on 19th century American landscape painting. He kept repeating his opinion that Turner was like a miniaturist. That although the paintings appeared quite simplified and abstract, upon closer examination (as your close-ups show) his paintings were in fact detailed and carefully built. I think he was particularly adamant about this because the film Mr. Turner had just been released and he thought it portrayed him as a slap-dash painter. Anyway, it was a very interesting lecture - and this is a great post, with beautiful paintings of Turner's, so much atmosphere and light - thank you for sharing your experience seeing them.

    1. thanks for that interesting comment, Tamar. These paintings were obviously made by a keen intelligence and definitely not slap-dash. I saw the Turner movie and understand why Wilton was upset about it; it emphasized Turner's working class roots and wasn't very good on his astute and sensitive painting.

  2. I would not reject any of them.
    They are GREAT!

  3. Joy for pointing this out in Turner. So many artists as they get older seem to discard the minutiae and grasp the essential. Rembrandt, Rodin, Michelangelo, Whistler. I wish I dared live like that. Like speaking in code to yourself. Before we die we want color, movement, the joy of creating!

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed this, Linda. And I agree about the late works of the artists you mention.

  4. He leapt in and made quite a splash.

  5. Thank you, thank you, Altoon, for sharing these images & ur reflections. (I have jealously been watching only through IG posts). Interesting comparison to Rothko. Well, artists are like the rest of us as we age: some get more free & others, more rigid. & then there are those like Van Gogh. The Art Institute of Chicago has tail end of fantastic show of his 3 versions of his bedrooms, with some of his late work. Wild.

    1. You're very welcome, Julie. It's true about the changes towards the end of life.
      What's IG?
      The van Gogh sounds great.

    2. Instagram. I mostly follow muser mums.

    3. Ah...I don't do Instagram, not having a smartphone.