At just under a hundred works — ninety-two watercolors and four oils — the William Turner show now at the Mystic Seaport Museum is as good an overview of the artist’s career in the medium as can be imagined. And what an overview it is of one of the greatest and most inventive watercolorists curated by the Tate’s Manton Senior Curator of British Art 1790-1850, David Blayney Brown.
Turner intended to secure his legacy by leaving a hundred oils to the National Gallery, but in 1856 the Chancery Court decided that was an insufficient bequest to Great Britain, and the contents of the artist’s studio went to the Tate. That meant — by liberal count — 36,000 watercolors. As Brown explained to me in a preview of the show, Turner sometimes painted on both sides of a page, and each image is counted separately. Every painting here represents some aspect of Turner’s creative personality.
The show is divided into seven parts in chronological order from early work to “Master and Magician,” with sections in between that include Turner’s travels across the continent’s peaks and valleys and his reliable return to the sea. The sizes vary greatly, from small-scale works that appear to have been done spontaneously; diminutive vignettes, painted for publication and the least interesting work here; large, highly finished pieces, mostly from the early period; and large, loosely painted images, like Gordale Scar, that in their ambition and expressiveness relate most closely to the later oils.
Turner was pragmatic, carrying small sketchbooks that could be rolled up and stuffed in his pockets while traveling. He was also experimental. In the 1820s he started to paint on colored paper, and relying on gouache for chromatic passages, created effects that were indescribably beautiful. He regularly supplemented transparent pigments with gouache, and used graphite or ink underdrawing, at times supplying a minimal scaffolding upon which to hang color washes.
The early paintings are generally dark and nearly monochromatic, yet they are rich in the layering of washes in a way that foreshadows Turner’s later blurring of distinctions between water and oil based media. They’re also rich in manual labor, the paper sometimes abraded by rubbing and scraping of paint. By contrast, the late works are radically economical, and at times feature rapid series of brushstrokes to designate clouds or water, most of the page left bare.
Discussion of abstraction is more appropriate to Turner than any other artist of the mid-19th century. It’s a relevant matter from the 1830s onward, and even in examples of skillful shorthand that predate the 1820s. Later watercolors and oils (Stormy Sea with Dolphins) inevitably summon comparisons to abstract expressionism.
For all the influence Turner exerted on Impressionist theory, his most direct successors seem to be non-objectivists. Connecting art historical dots indulges the luxury of retrospection; Turner was painting for himself. It is difficult to draw a line from Turner’s predecessors to his late paintings.
I asked Brown about the influence of Thomas Girtin, a rival in Turner’s youth, but no other artist’s work appears to have inspired the prominence of watercolor in Turner’s oeuvre, nor the experiments of his maturity. Though he made references to artists he admired, the calligraphic brevity and lack of identifiable landmarks in the late work don’t appear to relate to anything that came before. By the 1840s, he was working without a net. None was necessary.
To cherry pick a handful of watercolors, Loch Long, Morning (1801) is a scene of credible depth, enlivened by the graphic snap of a pier, boat and figures silhouetted against the morning glare.
The technical advance made by the time of Venice: San Giorgio Maggiore ~ Early Morning (1819) is remarkable, in that great talent evolved to a mastery of luminous atmosphere. Perhaps only Rembrandt’s pen and wash drawings had previously suggested space in a landscape with such economical means.
In Venice: Looking across the Lagoon at Sunset (1840), the paring of recognizable touchstones is almost complete—we have blue water, orange sky, and a few pilings, much of it painted wet-into-wet with the resultant soft edges. Landscape is now experienced as aura. For the record, there are other Venetian landscapes from the same year that I prefer, like that of the Arsenale, with its complex wet and dry passages and precise contours. Be that as it may, there’s a lot to choose from here.
Finally, two paintings c. 1845, both titled Sea and Sky, reprise Lagoon at Sunset, though by now the jettisoning of material placeholders is all but complete.
In the end, Turner was no longer describing the visual world, and it is probably inaccurate to claim that he was transcribing optical sensations, in the manner that the impressionists would a few decades later. Turner was—with an understanding of the classical conventions of Western landscape painting at his disposal—representing the intangible, as had no Western artist before.
J.M.W. Turner: Watercolors from Tate, at Collins Gallery, Thompson Exhibition Building, Mystic Seaport Museum, 75 Greenmanville Ave., Mystic, CT, until February 23, 2020. This is the only venue for the show in North America.