J. M. W. Turner: Watercolors from London’s Tate, at Mystic Seaport, CT

Elaine A. King
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The exhibition J. M. W. Turner: Watercolors from Tate, presented at the Mystic Seaport Museum in partnership with Tate, London, offers the largest number of this master’s watercolors to be seen in the USA in decades and it is the only North American venue.  David Blayney Brown, the Tate’s Manton Senior Curator of British Art 1790-1850, curated this superb display that provides viewers with an extraordinary chance to see key watercolors spanning the entire career of this prominent artist.  The distinct assortment of 97 works were chosen from the legacy known as the “Turner Bequest,” comprised of more than 30,000 works on paper, 300 oil paintings, and 280 sketchbooks.  The vast collection was bequeathed to Great Britain after the artist’s death in 1851 (b. (1775).  According to Brown, “Here we see not the public Turner, whose large oil paintings hung prominently in the Royal Academy, but the private artist who continually tested compositions, color, and tactile effect.”

This carefully orchestrated display offers viewers a tight survey of Turner’s artistic progression from his youthful views of Oxford through his mystical landscape and marine atmospheric works that depict the artist’s ever-evolving growth and complex creative process.  It is organized into seven sections: “From Architecture to Landscape: Early Work,” “Nature and the Ideal: England c. 1805-15,” “Home and Abroad: 1815-30,” “Light and Color,” “The Annual Tourist: 1830-40,” and “Master and Magician: Late Work.”

J.M.W. Turner, The Harbour of Dieppe, c. 1826, oil on canvas, 173.7 x 225.4 cm (Frick Collection, New York)

The final section, “Turner and the Sea,” was curated chiefly for Mystic Seaport Museum.  Comprised of 17 watercolors, oils, and a sketchbook of scenes of the sea–shipwrecks, a beached boat, coastal views, and incandescent more abstract images, it is the highlight of the exhibit.  Intriguing are the preliminary sketches that evince Turner’s initial gems of ideas that lead to the crystallization of his renowned oil paintings for which he is mostly celebrated.  The work in this gallery with its vibrant colors and fluid brushwork is in direct contrast to his early topographical paintings found in the early sections that evince the influence of Neo-Classical painting.  He and artists of his generation were encouraged to paint their subjects as accurately and realistically as possible.  This said Turner was significantly influenced by the grandmaster of pastoral landscape painting Claude Lorrain who too made sun, earth, and water seem to resound with emotion in works that depicts ancient ruins evoking the passage of time and of the fortitude of architectural structures.  The painting Harbor Scene at Sunset, 1643 demonstrates Lorrain’s pioneering use of sunlight as the only source of illumination.  This technique of using intense luminosity was influential to Turner as evident in such noted works The Harbor of Dieppe, 1826 (above, right) and Regulus, 1828 (below), as well as the small but commanding watercolor in the exhibition, Venice: An Imaginary View of the Arsenale, 1840.  It was a pivotal work with its unfeasible perspective, use of pure color and radiating light that created a sensibility of the sublime allowing for one’s imagination to take flight in the magnificence of the romantic scene.


Joseph Mallord William Turner, “Regulus” (1828, reworked 1837) Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856.
Museum Note: Regulus was a Roman general who was captured by the Carthaginians. They sent him back to Rome to negotiate the release of Carthaginian prisoners. When he returned to Carthage, having failed his mission, he was punished by having his eyelids removed. Turner’s blinding, light-filled canvas makes manifest Regulus’s plight. In the style of 17th century painter, Claude Lorraine.

Throughout his life Turner dedicated himself untiringly to experimentation and astutely comprehended the power of color to express passionate feelings.  He was an artist who valued the Natural world—especially the sea—and grasped nature’s unrelenting potency.  Turner not only saw her beauty, mystery and enchanting presence but also its ability to destroy.  It was the latter that he feared yet was compellingly drawn to the high drama of natural catastrophe.  A legend that has endured about Turner is that he had himself tied to the mast of a ship for four hours during a nocturnal snowstorm.  Although this mythic gesture could be viewed as suicidal, it coincides with Turner’s eccentric personality and his approach to observe the extreme powers of nature. Throughout his oeuvre the destructive force of nature is revealed in a way that had not previously been depicted by other artists.  The watercolors A Wreck, Longships Lighthouse, Lanes End, 1834, Storm Over the Mountains, 1842-43 and A Mountainous Coast with a Stranded Vessel or Whale, Possibly at Penmaenmawr or in North-East England, 1825-38 encapsulates nature’s perilous force and demonstrates his moving away from realistic depiction.


Joseph Mallord William Turner, “A Mountainous Coast with a Stranded Vessel or Whale, Possibly at Penmaenmawr or in North-East England ” (circa 1820-30). Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856.

Although the Mystic exhibition does celebrate the artist’s masterful technique with watercolor, it undoubtedly demonstrates his keen observation of place and detail.  Even though he sketched outdoors, Turner hardly ever painted en plein air as the French Impressionists—he was master draughtsman and an outstanding watercolorist who drew inspiration from the nature though primarily created in his studio from memory and sketches.  However, by the late 1830s Turner became adept at working on the spot from either a window or balcony especially with watercolor—this especially applies to some of the Venice images.

The watercolors include landscapes, seascapes, travel scenes, and interior views that en masse disclose Turner’s acute skill in capturing light, color, sublimity, and atmosphere in the delicate however the difficult medium of watercolor demands both spontaneity yet incredible control.  He was a man who loved seaside towns, English and Alpine landscapes, and eventually came to adore the enchanting city of Venice.  In the final section several outstanding watercolors demonstrate Turner’s ability to capture the intrigue of Venice with light and color.  His use of pure watercolor for the pictures of Venice as well as Italian lakes was most suitable for these subjects.  Venice: Looking across the Lagoon at Sunset, 1840 portrays a vibrant color palette with a green lagoon, hazy orange sky and a lone band of purple cloud painted with loose brushworks and in vibrant translucent colors.


Joseph Mallord William Turner, “Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves” (exhibited 1846). Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856.

Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves, 1846 is one of the startling oils that shows the boiling of blubber for processing into oil however viewers must have patience and spend time examining its contents.  At first glance it is a dramatic spectacle of light with tall sailing masts punctuating the horizon.  This arrangement of captivating light with muddled colors and abstract handling of the brushstrokes requires careful scrutiny to locate the less visible appearance of the whalers and whale.  The whale is laid out on the ice at the foreground right of the picture and on the left hand side of the canvas whalers are the boiling down the whale’s blubber. In the background another vessel appears to be trapped in the ice where a crowd is desperately trying to free the vessel.  Many of the figurative forms are reduced to seemingly vague zigzag splintered lines within an encompassing mist.  The image reveals the exquisite talent of Turner to create such an imaginative setting in what appears to be a moody spray of lines, with the air, water, and ice polluted with smoke and oil.  Perhaps this was Turner’s commentary on the affects of the Industrial Revolution!

Funeral of Sir Thomas Lawrence: A Sketch from Memory (exhibited 1830). ©Tate London 2018.

Another unique composition in the show is the Funeral of Sir Thomas Lawrence: A Sketch from Memory, 1830.  It is a blend of exacting perspective and countless details yet implies immediacy by the fluid brushstrokes of the setting and cartoonish rendering of the figures.  Turner attended the funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral in January 1830, of the President of the Royal Academy, Sir Thomas Lawrence, who was a valued friend and advocate of Turner’s.  This unusually large composition is the last watercolor he exhibited at the Royal Academy.  It captures the cold air in January by the portrayal of women huddled together with muffs and exemplifies the grandeur of the occasion by the number of mourners in attendance.  Painted in a darker palette it is in contrast with most of Turner’s later vivid watercolors. The depth of field captures the magnitude of the vast space and the glow from the radiant white light on the ground accents the somberness of the occasion with the black horses, hearse and carriages.  What especially stands out in this piece is a man in the foreground with a bright red coat arriving at the funeral; it is suggested he represents the Duke of Wellington, prime minister at that time who actually didn’t attend the funeral but instead sent his empty carriage that was an accepted English tradition—some believe the inclusion of the red figure is a private censure by the artist. 

On the cover- “Venice: An Imaginary View of the Arsenale” (1840) ©Tate London 2018.

The exhibition catalogue* Conversations with Turner: The Watercolors (left), edited by Nicholas Bell, Mystic Museum’s senior vice president for Curatorial Affairs is an exquisite compendium of essays by art historians and curators including Tim Barringer, Alexander Nemerov, Oliver Meslay and Susan Grace Galassi along with vibrant illustrations of Turner’s art with an emphasis on the landscapes and seascapes.  It affords one to see close hand the evolution of his stylistic visual language and practice and to realize the significance of his paintings on artists in the 20th century and artists today—especially Mark Rothko and currently on the Danish/Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson renowned for his installations and use of light.  The exhibition and book is a gift to the public providing a deeper insight into Joseph Mallord William Turner’s investigations of color and light.

By Elaine A. King, Contributing Writer

J. M. W. Turner: Watercolors from Tate

Mystic Seaport Museum, Mystic, Connecticut

Collins Gallery, Thompson Exhibition Building

Through February 23, 2020


*The catalog is available for sale in the Museum’s store and online: https://shop.mysticseaport.org/conversations-with-turner-the-watercolors.html

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