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Swimming in the dreamy, romantic world of J.M.W. Turner watercolors

J.M.W. Turner's "Venice: Looking across the Lagoon at Sunset," from 1840.Tate: Accepted as part of the Turner Bequest in 1856

MYSTIC, Conn. — There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who like Joseph Mallord William Turner, and those who like him a lot. I say this because I don’t know how it’s possible to not at least partly be under the spell of the bombastically effusive British painter, whose every brushstroke feels supercharged with radical newness. If you admire energy, vision, passion, and outright, irrepressible originality then Turner’s your guy.

Nowhere does this feel more true than in his watercolors, some 92 of which — among the thousands and thousands recovered from his studio after his death in 1851 — are strung along the walls of the Mystic Seaport Museum, an extravagant loan from Britain’s Tate until the end of February. I used to find Turner compelling as an outlier in an era of heroic landscape painting for his blustery dynamism, his explosive, kinetic experiments across big canvases fuzzed and shaded with big swaths of oily hues. When I first saw his watercolors, Turner’s world ballooned, in front of my eyes, to a full-blown universe. I liked him. Now I like him a lot.


I’ve become one of those people — and we are legion — for whom no amount of Turner is too much, or even enough. “J.M.W. Turner: Watercolors from the Tate” comes as close as anyone on this side of the Atlantic could reasonably hope. (If you’re one of us, go now. Seriously.) It’s a by-the-book chronology, a convention that can feel lazy or plodding for some artists. For Turner, there’s no other way. A body of work so relentlessly interesting, so irrepressibly alive, needs less structure, not more. With so much meat, a skeleton will do.

Turner's "A Wreck, Possibly Related to ‘Longships Lighthouse, Land’s End,’" painted in 1834.Tate: Accepted as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

It starts early, with landscapes and architectural sketches made while Turner was just in his teens. They show a crisp, draftsmanly hand, but even then, Turner was Turner. He made “A Windmill on a Hill above an Extensive Landscape with Winding River,” when he was 19, in 1794-95. The mill, carved precisely in ink, perches above a loose and roiling sea. “Moonlight over the Sea, with Distant Cliffs,” painted at 21, shimmers with inky darkness, a glowering foreshadow of things to come.


Just a few years later, epic-size works on paper declare the 24-year old artist’s arrival, fully formed: 1799′s “The Destruction of the Bards by Edward I,” its jagged mountains softened in a cloak of mist, or 1801′s “Blair Atholl, Looking towards Killiecrankie,” with shafts of soft light cascading through a foggy veil to river and hillock below, are just the kind of landscapes of the mind in which Turner exulted most — preternatural, dreamy, laced with dread. In an era of realism, Turner, apart from his peers, built scenes partly from the world and largely from his imagination, a lyrical romantic to the core. John Constable, Turner’s chief rival, devoted himself to precision, letting loose only above ground in his unearthly clouds. For Turner, letting loose started from the ground up, or in the depths of the boiling seas.

The legend of Turner is famously dramatic: A barber’s son born in an apartment above the shop in Covent Garden in 1775, Turner infiltrated the highest levels of London’s polite cultural circles with his cockney accent and bluster, blazing with the same vitality as his endlessly explosive paintings. (One year at the Royal Academy exhibition, Turner stormed out while his work was being compared to Constable’s. He then stomped back in with a paint-slicked palette to add several angry swipes of red to his piece, finished and on the wall.)


The story of his watercolors is no less charged. If Turner had his way, none ever would have seen the light of day. As he approached death, his stature as Britain’s greatest painter was without question. Turning away from the private collectors jostling for his works, he instead bequeathed 100 finished oil paintings to the nation, to be hung, he envisioned, in a dedicated space at a National Gallery.

His sketches, drawings, and watercolors — some 19,000 works on paper, stuffed and scattered around a London home so unkempt “it might have been the scene of a murder,” one critic wrote — weren’t part of the deal. They were thoughts, notes, impressions, jumbles, as far as Turner saw them, not meant to be seen. After his death, the British government thought otherwise, and claimed “all the pictures, drawings, and sketches” Turner made as one, “without any distinction of finished or unfinished.”

The renowned writer and philosopher John Ruskin, then a young critic and devoted Turner acolyte, was given the task of sifting the home’s contents in 1852, months after the artist’s death. “Nothing since Pompeii so impressed me” as the rambling dishevelment of Turner’s studio, he wrote to his father; “daylight for the first time admitted by opening a window on the finest productions of art buried for forty years.”


It’s not hard to imagine a good many of the works on Mystic Seaport’s walls passing through Ruskin’s eager hands, his mouth agape in joyful awe. With this show, you have to remind yourself that Turner’s era was one of crisp realism, shot through with idealized (and occasionally apocalyptic) visions of nature, and that the formal liberties of Impressionism were long yet to come.

With his watercolors, Turner could paint with virtuosic precision, a confounding gift in a medium so fussily fluid. (“Scarborough,” a tiny 1825 picture of a tall ship moored near the beach, is uncanny, with each knot of its rigging tightly rendered.) But more striking — and they’re nearly all striking in one way or another — are the daubs and stains, barely there, from which the artist coaxes feeling and form by the sparest of means. They do more with less than should be even possible.

Turner's "A Harpooned Whale," from 1845.Tate: Accepted as part of the Turner Bequest in 1856

You’ll marvel at the incandescent scene in the great big “Venice: Looking across the Lagoon at Sunset,” a simmering stew of turquoise waters, tangerine sky, and electric lavender cloud. But I looked a long, long time at the array of small works that Turner seems to have hardly touched, but bristle with evocative force all the same.

A half dozen or more are simply called “Sea and Sky”: barely-there bundles of inky cloud blotting out sunlight above waters below — some pallid, some indigo, some luminous. “Land’s End, Cornwall,” from 1834, transfixed me. With its mass of blue-black above, a teeming wash of pale yellow below, and a burst of dull maroon at its core, it felt like something alive, in motion right there in front of me. “A Harpooned Whale,” from 1845, demands a leap of the imagination, a compact with the viewer painters of Turner’s era never dared: On a mostly-untouched page, wisps of bright crimson drift like plumes of smoke and vanish, diffuse. Death here is little more than a whisper, but more powerful for it.


I stopped and stared at “A Wreck, Possibly Related to ‘Longships Lighthouse, Land’s End.’” (Like his hand, Turner’s titles are brilliantly unbound, as though it’s all happening before your eyes.) It looks like a rinse-pail spilled over a mound of charcoal dust. A spurt of fuchsia somehow seethes from within the haze; a black mass, awash in a stain of pale gray, emerges. It’s extravagantly beautiful — in its spareness, spontaneity, and everything else. It made me think of Turner as unstuck in time, a cosmic traveler to whom epoch and circumstance mean nothing, who could see all of its continuum at once.

Turner's "Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves," from 1846.Mark Heathcote and Abbie Soanes/Tate Photography

The show, guessing rightly where all this might naturally lead, warns with a label that “(t)he modern concept of abstraction would not have been understood or endorsed in the 19th century, even by an artist as experimental as Turner.” Maybe not, but it’s no stretch to think Turner, with his boundless vision, saw something in his little experiments that surely escaped the conventions of his time. He did keep them, after all, sensing, perhaps, something of their worth, their ineffability, their power to carry feeling in ways depiction could not.

The show includes four of his full-blown oil-paintings, and they are mighty things indeed. “Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves,” from 1846, is unearthly, twin sets of masts towering in a shimmering gloom. The one that sticks? “Stormy Sea with Dolphins,” in which I dare you to see dolphins, or sea, or storm. Is Turner capturing that moment, in classical Romantic fashion, when nature subsumes, and man submits? Most likely. But it’s a joyful thing, hot flashes of color, wild strokes of paint. Like so much of Turner’s work, it less threatens than teases. Even with his boundless vision, it’s too much to say Turner could see the future. But with his blazing originality, he cut a path right to it, and showed it where to go.


Mystic Seaport Museum, 75 Greenmanville Ave., Mystic, Conn. 860-572-0711,

Murray Whyte can be reached at Follow him @TheMurrayWhyte.