Exhibits of J.M.W. Turner's work in recent years have shown snapshots of the famous British landscape painter's travels, styles and illustrations of history. Now the broad range of his six-decade career comes together in the largest Turner retrospective ever presented in the United States.
"J.M.W. Turner" opens Monday at the National Gallery of Art, showing some of his works for the first time in this country. The exhibition chronicles the artist's evolution — from his beginnings with architectural watercolors to his first oil paintings of rough seas and his iconic pictures of historic scenes — as well as his later, more abstract years, when some thought him a kook who had lost his touch.
In all, the exhibition shows the broad range of Turner's interests and techniques in a way curators said they haven't seen in years.
"He was nothing if not ambitious in the range of his art," said Franklin Kelly, the art gallery senior curator who coordinated the exhibit. "Many people who knew Turner's works were surprised when they met him that he wasn't some wild-haired romantic genius running around but in fact a short man wearing shabby clothes and given to muttering to himself."
About 140 works make up the exhibit, with contributions from museums in Cleveland, Kansas City, Philadelphia and others. Tate Britain, the national gallery of British art in London, is lending 85 works. After Washington, the exhibit opens at the Dallas Museum of Art on Feb. 10, 2008, and at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art on June 24, 2008.
Some notable paintings never before shown in the United States are "Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps" (1812) and "The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire" (1817), said Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art. The gallery also has produced a documentary film to accompany the exhibition.
One of the exhibition's goals has been to bring together some of the paradoxes of Turner's art, said Ian Warrell, a curator at London's Tate Britain gallery.
Warrell notes that Turner "looks both backwards and forwards at the same time so that he can appeal to modern artists like (Mark) Rothko and (Jackson) Pollock" as well as artists of his time. Another contradiction: At times, Turner's work was strongly patriotic for the British and other times he questioned authority, Warrell said.
Joseph Mallord William Turner dominated the British art world for six decades of his life, from 1775 to 1851. Many considered him the father of British watercolor, though unjustly so, Warrell argues. Warrell said even Turner acknowledged that other painters, such as Thomas Girtin, laid the groundwork for watercolor.
At the same time, Turner probably wouldn't have minded the accolades. He yearned to make a name for himself and excelled at self-promotion, Warrell said. There are stories of Turner adding more red to his work at times to outshine paintings hanging nearby, he said.
"He was terribly competitive," Warrell said.
Turner, the son of a barber, got his start at the age of 14 when he enrolled in the Royal Academy of the Arts and studied the old masters, particularly Rembrandt, Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin. His first works drew praise.
Turner's first oil painting exhibited at the Royal Academy is part of the Washington exhibit. "Fishermen at Sea" (1796) shows a rough sea lit by the moon — the maritime scene becoming a significant inspiration for Turner throughout his career.
Other highlights include Turner's largest work, the 8½-by-12-foot painting "The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805" (1823-1824), with its towering battleship. Commissioned by King George IV, the piece was almost immediately criticized for compressing events and sacrificing accuracy in depicting the British defeat of a combined French and Spanish fleet.
The exhibit also features several paintings that Turner had planned on being paired, though they haven't always been shown that way. Together, they create a "dialogue between past and present," especially on the theme of the rise and fall of civilizations, Warrell said.
One example is the depiction of 19th-century Newcastle, England, at the height of its commercial dominance in "Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight" (1835), a sharp contrast from "Venice: The Dogana (Customs Office) and San Giorgio Maggiore" (1834), showing Italy's maritime power in decline.
The final rooms of the exhibition show the stark change in Turner's work in his later years, as he shifted from more defined scenes and forms to expressive broad brushwork. His works included a focus on the atmosphere with a swirl of clouds, mist, water and air. Turner was dismissed by critics at the time for the "blurriness" of these paintings.
One room is devoted to the series of works "The Burning of the Houses of Parliament" (1834), which Turner used to explore qualities of light, color and darkness in both oil and watercolor.
Later generations saw that Turner's use of light and color in these last years helped inspire the Impressionists after his death.