J.M.W. Turner

The Met celebrates a British master of light and water.

Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight

Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight Photograph: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Collection of the National Gallery, Washington D.C.

Even in a century notable for heroic output, J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851) stood tall. At his death, his studio contained some 300 paintings and a mind-boggling 19,000 studies on paper, and this exhibition—incredibly, the first ever Turner retrospective in America—necessarily covers a great deal of ground. Organized jointly by the National Gallery of Art, the Dallas Museum of Art and the Met, in association with the Tate Gallery in London, it comprises some 140 works, and builds slowly from Turner’s first topographical watercolors to his last atmospheric canvases. The show is both nerve-racking and thrilling: As presented here, Turner’s career resembles nothing so much as a massive storm seen from space, gathering speed and ferocity as it rages toward the unwelcoming shores of early Victorian Britain.

Turner’s earliest works were watercolors, which he first showed at the Royal Academy in 1790 at age 15. Watercolor remained an important medium for the artist, and the exhibition includes stunning examples ranging from the detailed to the minimal to the nearly abstract. Turner soon taught himself to paint in oils, however, and his “tinted drawings” of picturesque ruins were quickly succeeded by canvases featuring storm-tossed sailors, Alpine ravines and scenes of river life (especially pleasurable is a pair of 1805 oil sketches of the Thames, painted, unusually for Turner, en plein air). The early years of the 19th century find him alternating between thunderous historical narratives and more quotidian subjects, from London (1809)—limned as a growing metropolis shimmering under a faint haze of smog—to Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps (1812), which presages Turner’s later work. Inspired by Edmund Burke’s writings on the sublime, Hannibal mimics Turner’s 1797 watercolor of the choir of Salisbury Cathedral (not included in this leg of the show). Instead of medieval church architecture, however, Turner offers mile-high pillars of black cloud flanking a glowing vault of filtered yellow light. Set high in the composition, where a rose window might be, is a dirty ochre sun, with tiny figures of soldiers crawling beneath it like penitents.

For today’s viewers, who look at Turner through the lens of modern art, it’s difficult to imagine the controversy surrounding his work when it first appeared; as early as 1802, it was deemed “too indeterminate and wild,” as one review at the time put it. Painterliness per se wasn’t the problem—in fact, it was a hallmark of British art of the era—but Turner had also begun to leave a distressing amount to the viewer’s imagination. By the 1820s, contours were being subsumed by color: in Mortlake Terrace (1827) by a lambent yellow glow; in Regulus (1828) by a sizzling white glare. Even more unsettling, nothing in Turner’s paintings seems to stay still. Having mastered not only the colors and textures of nature’s surfaces, but also the appearance of her most spectacular and ephemeral effects—sun behind clouds, wind on water, water in sunlight—Turner increasingly painted flux rather than form. To his more conservative critics, witnessing England’s advancing urbanization and industrialization, as well as the emergence of unsettling new political and social theories, Turner’s celebrations of transience may have well been discomfiting.

The second half of the show is sheer sensory overload. For much of the 1830s, Turner effortlessly juggled styles: Rotterdam Ferry Boat (1833) represents the culmination of his efforts in the mode of 17th-century Dutch marine painting; Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight (1835) is a harsh industrial scene rendered in the manner of Claude Lorraine (who was a lifelong hero). A pair of sparkling, Canaletto-like views of Venice from the early 1830s are unabashed eye candy; Staffa, Fingal’s Cave (1832), its subject a steamship rounding a craggy Scottish island in a storm, represents Turner’s mature style, in which impressionistic skeins and washes of color are overlaid with expressionist passages of impasto paint.

Light and water increasingly became Turner’s great metaphors, and in his last works, many unfinished, the world is reduced to these two elemental forces. In paintings such as Snowstorm-Steamboat Off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842), the distinctions between atmosphere and solid matter, past and present, simply vanish. After Turner’s death, John Ruskin, his most enthusiastic supporter, would refer to him as “faithless,” perhaps belatedly recognizing the notion of change without progress implicit in these later works. Some of these paintings—in particular, Peace-Burial at Sea (1842)—appear startlingly contemporary. And if, in their emphasis on uncertainty, contingency and temporality, they reflect views more widely accepted at the beginning of the 21st century than the beginning of the 19th, they still look radical.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, through Sept 21