J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) is considered Britain's greatest painter, renowned for his stunning landscapes, seascapes, and depictions of the beauty and wrath of Nature. A new traveling exhibition of his later works, "J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free" (now at the de Young Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco through Sept. 20, 2015), reveals the depth of the elements in Turner's art.
For one acclaimed painting, "Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth" (1842), Turner claimed that in order to experience the torrent of the storm from a ship, he asked sailors to tie him to the mast, so as not to be blown overboard.
"He said, 'I was there for four hours, and I didn't think I was gonna survive. But if I did, I felt bound to record it,'" co-curator Julian Brooks told CBS News. "Frankly, looking at something like this, you feel it. You're right in the storm with him. I challenge anyone to stand close to this and not be buffeted by it."
By CBSNews.com senior producer David Morgan
"Turner portrayed water, according to his contemporaries, better than anyone else," said Brooks. "The water's seething in all different directions. And just these huge splashes as the waves come together ... just driving the spray up to the top edge of the canvas."
Yet one critic said "Snow Storm" consisted of nothing but "soapsuds and whitewash." Turner's reply: "Well, you know, I wonder what they think the sea's like. I wish they'd been in it!"
Crucially, "Snow Storm" features a steamboat, a symbol of new 19th century technology. "Instead of celebrating the technology, he makes it clear that the boat is nothing compared to the power of the sea," said Brooks.
Joseph Mallord William Turner (left, in a self-portrait painted at age 24) was a Cockney and never tried to hide it, even around his posh patrons. His father was a barber; his mother died in an insane asylum. It was his landscapes which made him famous and rich - landscapes and seascapes that, in the last years of his life especially, were as radical, as intense and strange as the man himself.
Julian Brooks told CBS News' Martha Teichner that Turner represents a shift of vision in the art world of the early- to mid-19th century. "Up until Turner, art is very descriptive, [with] Mankind as the center of it. Ever since the Renaissance, the world revolves around man.
"With Turner, you have this sense of Nature suddenly taking over. Nature can sort of throw Mankind to the elements. Nature can destroy in a single moment any work of man."
Brooks points out that Turner was less interested in depicting medieval subjects or mythology (as was popular at the time) than in more contemporary subjects, such as his document of "The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834" (left).
"He was dealing with essentially news, with events that were happening right then," he said. "Obviously, a huge fire in the center of London, it was a massive event." He noted that Turner took some artistic license, depicting the towers of Westminster Abbey and Westminster Bridge aflame - they'd been spared from the conflagration.
"People have read various sort of political motivations into [the painting]," Brooks told Teichner. "From what we know of Turner, he wasn't immensely politically active. But he was somebody utterly obsessed with the power of the elements, with the power of fire and water and air."
"Mercury and Argus," painted before 1836. Oil on canvas.
"Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino" (1839). Oil on canvas.
"Ancient Rome: Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus" (1839).
"Venice at Sunrise from the Hotel Europa, with Campanile of San Marco" (c. 1840).
"Turner elevated landscape to something that was meaningful and something that was important, and in terms of technique, he set painting free," said Brooks. "Technically, he would paint in a very free fashion. He would use a lot of what are called medium modifiers, where he would mix the pigment with different things to make a mixture that would flow more easily. And he left works in a state of unfinish that often shocked his contemporaries who were used to very detailed, very highly-worked canvasses."
"Venice: Santa Maria della Salute, Night Scene with Rockets" (1840). Watercolor and bodycolor on paper.
"Ehrenbreitstein" (1841). Watercolor and pen and ink on paper.
"Fire at the Grand Storehouse of the Tower of London" (1841). Watercolor.
Turner loved painting Alpine scenes, such as in "The Blue Rigi: Sunrise" (1842), with Switzerland's Lake Lucerne in the foreground. It is an example, Brooks said, that shows how the artist's oil and watercolor techniques fused: "It's all about layers and layers and layers and glazes and effects, [creating] atmosphere."
"Peace: Burial at Sea" (1842) recounts, in an impressionistic manner, the burial at sea of David Wilkie, an artist who caught typhoid while in the Holy Land and died. The Governor of Gibraltar - fearing contamination - refused to let the ship carrying Wilkie's body land, and so his remains were consigned to the sea.
"Where's the body?" asked Teichner.
"He's not trying to record an historical event as such," said Brooks. "It's more in some ways a symbolist painting. It's all about generating emotion and a sense of missing his comrade and friend through the power of the palette."
Noting the silhouette of the ship, fellow painter Clarkson Stanfield said to Turner, "You'll never find a black as black as that in Nature. Why did you paint it so black?" To which Turner replied, "Well, I only wish I could've found a paint blacker."
"The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella from the Steps of the Europa" (1842).
"Turner was catching onto the fact that scenes of Venice were selling well in London at that time," said Brooks. "He went in 1840 and did hundreds of watercolor sketches of the city. He was captivated by Venice himself, the way that the light changed from minute to minute, the light on the water, the combination of the two."
It was also a Venice people hadn't seen before. "Turner transformed Venice into this sort of magical, ghostly city. It's all about atmosphere and about effects of light and water and the way the two work together."
It's what art critic John Ruskin, a lifelong advocate for Turner, called his "hazy style."
"A Sea of Blood"
"War: The Exile and the Rock Limpet" (1842). Oil on canvas.
Intended to be exhibited with the painting "Peace: Burial at Sea," Turner described the sunset as "a sea of blood."
"The Sun of Venice Going to Sea" (1843). Oil on canvas.
"Approach to Venice" (1844). Oil on canvas.
"You're not seeing the whale, it's really about the sense of a whale hunt," said Brooks. "About the elements, the cold, the spray, the humidity, the atmosphere. These are the sort of elements that were important to Turner. And this was very much in contrast to his peers [who] would describe everything - you would see precisely what was going on. You'd see the whale being cut up!
"Whereas with Turner you just get the sense of this giant object, the enormity of the landscape, the seascape around you, the danger of the ice. It's not a cerebral type of art. It's not an art where you need to read tons of books. It's an art where you look at it, and you get this visceral response to it. You get a sense of the emotional impact of what Turner wants to convey to you."
"Rain Clouds" (c. 1845). Watercolor on paper.
"Norham Castle, Sunrise" (c. 1845), an unfinished work that was never exhibited, but which would be considered a finished painting half a century later.
"All the forms are abstracted into just color and light - it's Impressionism before Impressionism came into being," Brooks told Teichner. "This is a touchstone from Turner's late work that contemporary artists and artists after him look to and derive from."
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