SALEM — No one seemed to know much of anything about J.M.W. Turner in the early 1790s, when he began exhibiting a series of drawings and watercolors at London’s Royal Academy. But people were impressed — “strong indications of a first rate ability” noted one critic — and itching to know more.
Turner (1775-1851) was the son of a barber and wigmaker. His actual birth date has never been firmly established, but he always claimed to have been born on April 23, which is not only St George’s Day but purportedly the birthday of Shakespeare. Irrespective of its veracity, the claim is a clue to what is most important about Turner: He was British through and through.
In 1796, he submitted his first oil painting to the Academy, “Fishermen at Sea,” and the critics’ wishes were granted. Here was someone to reckon with. Within two years, he was inundated with commissions — “more. . . at present than he could execute” — and pulling in more money than he was spending. His work was hailed as “undeniable proof of the possession of genius.”
Britain’s most ambitious, her most original and accomplished artist, was on his way.
A nighttime scene vividly illuminated by a full moon, “Fishermen at Sea” is in “Turner & the Sea” at the Peabody Essex Museum. The show hinges on Turner’s lifelong affinity for all things maritime. Organized by the National Maritime Museum in London, it places Turner in the context of his marine painter predecessors, peers, and protégés, both nearby and distant. Even Americans, including Moran, Church, Sargent, and Whistler, are represented — obliquely reminding us that Turner’s alleged birth date also fell in the same week as “the shot heard round the world” — the beginning of the American Revolutionary War.
The show feels patchy in some ways — too few Turners, too much padding — but its manageable scale makes it a welcome antidote to the sprawling Turner retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2008 — a show that triggered a gush of gripes among New York’s footsore art critics.
Turner does ask a lot of us. His pictures may anticipate Impressionism and 20th-century abstraction: the trail of crumbs linking Turner with Whistler, Monet, Kandinsky, and Twombly has long since hardened into a superhighway of academic art history. And yet, as Simon Schama put it back in 2007, “we do Turner no favors by pinning the tinny little medal of First Modernist on him.”
Even at his wooziest and most atmospheric, Turner was very much a narrative painter, steeped in literature and history, his whole sensibility molded, buffeted, and frothed into strange new forms by the great storm of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and the beginnings of British imperialism. If you fail, in the end, to be moved by his many-dimensioned achievement, you lack not only an “eye” — that supposed acme of modernist art appreciation; you lack, more seriously, imagination.
Still, these are pictures, not history textbooks, and so it’s best both to begin and end by looking. In “Fishermen at Sea,” for instance, notice how the moonlight picks out not only the black clouds that threaten to obscure it, but also the wave that threatens the fishermen’s boats. The two natural phenomena form a mirrored arch — a kind of light-strafed tondo (or circular painting) inside, and at war with, the outskirts of the rectilinear picture. It’s a compositional device that Turner returned to repeatedly in the decades that followed.
Toward the end of his career, for instance, in the magnificent “Snow Storm — Steam-Boat Off a Harbour’s Mouth” (1842), the artist’s conjuring of elemental chaos clings, almost in spite of itself, to this same format. The inner tondo has centrifugal energies: The steamer’s plume of red and black smoke, the contending waves, and the sheer, shimmering vitality of Turner’s broken paint all conspire to pull it apart.
But the picture’s unity is maintained, just as the vessel at the center of the storm — reduced to a black smudge oozing into its own aqueous reflection — hangs on. For now.
Turner worried at times about taking painting to such extremes. “Indistinctness is my fault,” he apologized to one American collector who had complained about Turner’s 1832 painting “Staffa, Fingal’s Cave,” perhaps the most beautiful in the Peabody Essex show.
But he was more than capable of painting “distinctly,” and the virtue of this show is that, by presenting Turner’s early maritime works along with late ones, it gives us a sense of the range of his technical powers.
Note, for instance, not just the brilliant light and utterly convincing details in “Fishermen Upon a Lee-Shore, in Squally Weather” (1802), but also the way, in the picture’s foreground, Turner has flecked white paint over a translucent brown ground created with some kind of oil-dispersion technique to capture the optical doubleness of glassy water beneath frothing surf. No one — not Courbet, not Constable, not Winslow Homer — has painted crashing waves that are livelier or more convincing.
You come to “Staffa, Fingal’s Cave” after rooms devoted to Turner’s early maritime works, then paintings by various contemporaries and influences (look out, in particular, for Jacob van Ruisdael’s “Rough Sea at a Jetty,” on loan from the Kimbell Art Museum), and then his works on paper. “Staffa” hangs near Constable’s earthy oil sketch, “Hove Beach,” and his overcast “Chain Pier,” a dismal but delightfully particular image of Brighton.
Turner’s picture could not be more different. Between a sun setting over the sea and the columnar, rain-shrouded cliffs of Fingal’s Cave — a marvelous, tall sea cave off the west coast of Scotland — Turner painted a steam ship. Its chimney billows black smoke in a plume carried by the wind toward the peach-tinged cave, where it bleeds into Turner’s characteristic amalgam of sea-spray, light, and precipitation. A white seagull hovers over blackened water in the foreground, rain dimples the sea, and one can’t imagine anything more stirring.
Turner sailed around Staffa himself, of course (he went everywhere); but he also relished the cave’s associations, and had sought it out as he gathered material for a collaboration with Walter Scott. The cave had been “discovered” in 1772 by Sir Joseph Banks, the great botanist who voyaged with Captain Cook. Banks described the site’s association with ancient Scottish legend — the doomed warrior-king Fingal and his poet son Ossian.
Mindful of this, Turner included a quotation from Scott’s “Lord of the Isles,” a poem about Scotland’s struggles for independence, in the catalog of the Academy show. A week after the exhibition opened, Felix Mendelssohn’s composition “Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave)” premiered in London.
Oh, marvelous 19th century!
One of the show’s star attractions is Turner’s enormous “Battle of Trafalgar,” which was commissioned by George IV as a pendant to Philip James de Loutherbourg's similarly vast “Lord Howe’s Action, or the Glorious First of June,” with which it shares a room here. Both paintings commemorate triumphant battles of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.
Turner’s painting collapses different episodes from the battle — the French surrender, and Nelson’s dying — into one. It’s a magnificent set-piece, overwrought in ways that befuddle and embarrass 21st-century sensibilities, and very different to the more modest, near-abstract sketches in oil, watercolor, chalk, and pencil on display in the next room.
But both kinds of picture were turned out by the same mind. It was a protean mind, pressed in on from all sides by a stupendous cultural inheritance and a streaming, dramatic, and weather-filled present. It presses back urgently on ours.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.