A master of light, years ahead of his time

Joseph Mallord William Turner - a grandiose name for the grandest painter Britain produced. Born in 1775, a cockney lad, who rose from the ragged streets of London to also become Britain's most revered painter. In his day, he was admired by some, hated by others. The critics dismissed him as a madman; they called his work unfinished..."pictures of nothing."

Today, those pictures are nothing short of extraordinary. Last July, the finest collection of Turner watercolors for sale in more than a century fetched almost $22 million at a Sotheby's auction.

And now, the first major Turner retrospective in America in nearly half a century features 140 paintings and watercolors, on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

CBS News correspondent Morley Safer sat down recently with Frank Kelly, the curator of the exhibition.

"He was obsessed with light," Safer observed, "Capturing it and even enhancing it."

"Yes," Kelly agreed, "It's there from the beginning, the early watercolors, where the shafts of sunlight are breaking through that cloudy sky...all the way through the great, late visionary works where you're really staring at the sun."

Turner was the son of a barber, a prodigy who made a name for himself selling pictures from his father's shop window. At age 14, he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and by 21, exhibited his first major painting , "Fishermen at Sea."

"He's showing off," Kelly said about that painting, "He's showing his learnedness but also his ability."

Safer marveled at the remarkable quality of the moonlight in that painting, made when Turner was so early in his career.

"It's a remarkable performance," said Kelly, "and I think it's also amazing how, as you're pulled into it, you go in and you start to see there's real, everyday detail in there. The fishermen are setting their nets and you see them working, and his observant qualities are evident from the beginning."

Turner painted majestic cathedrals, the stately homes of England and crumbling ruins, but it was nature that inspired him most - from dramatic, sweeping landscapes to thunder storms, blizzards and squalls.

"He was working within a tradition in the late 18th, early 19th century, that had a name, the sublime," explained Kelly, "that was in artistic theory one of the characteristics of looking at nature when you were in awe, or in fact maybe a little frightened by it - big, tall mountains or precipices and deep chasms."

"Was it evident then that there was something going on here that was so remarkable?" Safer asked him.

"I think it became evident very soon, in part because of Turner," Kelly said. "He must have been tremendously hard working. He once said when asked, "What's the secret to your success?", he said, "Damn hard work."

A hard worker, but not beyond some self-promotion. He opened a gallery in London to showcase his work. He produced a "Book of Studies," a kind of catalogue advertising his talents. But it was his paintings of the sea that made his reputation - from the every day to the extraordinary.

For the first two decades of Turner's career, Britain was at war with France. Its glories and tragedies made their way into his work, from the monumental "Battle of Trafalgar" and the defeat of the French at the "Field of Waterloo" to the iconic "Fighting Temeraire."

Safer brought up this last painting, which is not in the show at the National Gallery and described how the 1838 work portrayed the last moments of the dashing heroic ship Temeraire being towed for salvage...towed to be broken up.

"By a dirty looking little steam tug," Kelly added, laughing.

"So," Safer observed, "you have in a sense the dawn of the industrial age and all of its corruption, and the tragic end of sail, and this remarkable ship that was captured from the French earlier and saved victory at Trafalgar."

"Yes. It's an amazing painting," Kelly agreed, "and interestingly enough, Turner would never sell it. He called it "my darling"."

His "darling" was considered too precious to leave Britain for the Washington show. In September 2005, Britons voted it the nation's most beloved painting.

The war ended in 1815. Two years later, Turner's travels began. He toured Europe painting extraordinary watercolors - the Rouen Cathedral in France, Lake Lucerne in Switzerland, the Grand Canal in Venice.

Safer asked Kelly, "Was it Turner who put watercolors on the map and made them a serious pursuit?"

"Not single-handedly," he answered, "but certainly one of the most important factors and he used, I think, the fluid - literally water color - to create these veils and these sort of mysterious suggestions of color and form that were really pushing the medium technically in ways that it hadn't been."

National Gallery of Art

As in "The Burning of the Houses of Parliament" (left) -- "live coverage" we would call it today, he painted away as he witnessed this fire in 1834. Nine watercolors and two oil paintings, reunited here for the first time, and in them we see the first hints of Impressionism, 50 years before its time.

"They're extraordinary in their own right for these just rapturous colors and contrasting of hot reds and oranges and cool blues," said Kelly, "And it's amazing, you can sort of make out maybe a sense of the structure and where it is."

Well into his sixties, he continued to paint, but his work became more and more abstract. He outraged critics. They called his paintings "the fruits of a diseased eye and a reckless hand."

"I could see how a painting like this could cause an uproar in 19th century art circles because it is pure abstraction," Safer said as he and Kelly looked at one painting, "And as you get closer, it becomes only marginally less abstract."

"A modern title has been given to it, which is "Death on a Pale Horse," but normally you think of death riding the horse. If this is death on a pale horse, it's dead death," said Kelly with a laugh.

"Could we fairly describe him as the first modern painter?" asked Safer.

"I think you could," said Kelly, "Art is not necessarily always easy and pretty. And you see strains there that feel modern."

And what is more modern than questioning the official version of "victory"?

"This is the great victory at Waterloo, the end of the war with the French," said Safer, as they looked at a painting.

"Obviously a subject of great national importance to the British," observed Kelly, "and yet in Turner's world, it's a kind of nightmare vision of the casualties, the cost of war."

"The British and the French, and the dead horses and this incredible scene by torchlight of women looking maybe for dead loved ones, or it has been said, maybe looking for loot."

"It's almost an anti-war painting," noted Safer, "which was extremely unusual in the 19th century."

Turner exhibited his last painting in 1850. He died in 1851. In defense of his work, he once said, "atmosphere is my style." He was right.