Turner painted the sea more often than any other subject, and it was central to his artistic vision from his earliest, career-establishing works right to the very end of his productive life. The sea in itself would provide endless pictorial inspiration with its physical characteristics and inherent poetry. The infinitely mutable nature of water and its relationship with light would offer everlasting interest and challenge to any painter. Combined with the sociopolitical realities of Turner’s surroundings, there was no escaping the magnetism of the sea as subject matter. In Turner’s time, Britain was engaged in decades of naval conflict and life on the open seas was very much in the public imagination.
“Turner lived in one of the world’s most powerful nations at the water’s edge for much of his life, at the very peak of British sea power. As any great artist will do, he embraced the atmosphere of his time and presented it through his work. Turner’s talent was such that he went a step further and also redefined marine painting, and perhaps all painting, forever,” said Daniel Finamore, the Russell W. Knight Curator of Maritime Art and History.
Turner & the Sea is organized in seven thematic sections:
Turner on Show
Turner was an accomplished showman from the start of his career, strategically displaying works to generate patronage and publicity. He used marine painting to explore dramatic subjects and introduce dynamic colors which commanded the viewer’s attention in crowded and tightly hung galleries.
Featured in this section is the first painting Turner ever exhibited, Fishermen at Sea, displayed at the Royal Academy in 1796. It shows the young artist’s command of a rich Continental tradition of marine painting. While studiously reflecting on the art of the past, Turner also instills the work with contemporary relevance.
When Turner entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1789, marine painting had a long and prestigious history, including work by celebrated artists from the Netherlands and France. Their legacy, alongside a century-old tradition of marine painting in Britain, served as a benchmark against which Turner’s early artistic efforts were judged.
Turner studied the art of the past at every opportunity and responded in new and often unexpected ways. At the same time, political revolution across the Channel, resulting in a new war with France from 1793 on, gave added importance to the art of the sea for British artists and their public.
‘M’ for Marine
Turner was as well known for his works on paper as for his larger exhibited oil paintings. Working in watercolor and other media allowed him to explore the sea in different ways by following stretches of the British coast through a series of related images
At the heart of this enterprise was a collection of prints called the Liber Studiorum or Book of Studies. It was an ambitious print project intended to be a bold new manifesto for British landscape art. Turner assigned different letters to each category of landscape painting and included them at the top of each image. Marine painting was identified by the letter ‘M’.
Turner enjoyed the public acclaim he received and relished the sense of competition that was encouraged by the London art world. He followed his fellow artists closely, especially those he most admired, and was quick to respond if ever their work threatened to overshadow his own. In the 1820s, a new generation of marine painters emerged to challenge his position. They often followed Turner’s example by emulating the style of painting that had first brought him to public attention. Turner responded by taking his work in a new direction.
Most notably, he developed a new approach to epic history painting. In The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 Turner alludes to the death of a single hero, Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, within the context of the entire battle, all moments leading to victory shown at once in a feat of collapsed time and space.
Imagining the Sea
Turner was rarely without a sketchbook and colors, whether working at home or during his many journeys throughout Britain and on the Continent. At the end of his life, around 20,000 of his drawings and watercolors, together with numerous unfinished oil paintings, were left to the British people as the Turner Bequest.
Works in this section, including the 1845 watercolor, Whalers at Sea at Sunset, shed light on the more enigmatic aspect of Turner’s artistic pursuit of the sea. Some provide a unique insight into his travels – which, by sea, were frequent but short and mainly coastal – while others reveal a spontaneous, experimental side to his studio practice. Since his death in 1851, these once-private studies have helped shape Turner’s reputation as much as the oil paintings and watercolors that were finished and exhibited during his lifetime.
Turner’s final seascapes were unbound by the established rules and conventions of maritime art. His exhibited works continued to divide opinion by representing the sea in obviously modern ways. He also began a series of experimental canvases—of which Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth is a prime example—that revealed a deepening interest in the open sea and a quest to capture in paint the atmospheric effects and the emotional experience of being a vulnerable human being in an overwhelming tempest.
Turner’s last works, whether finished paintings destined for the Academy exhibition room or unfinished ‘works-in-progress’, attest to the extraordinary path his career had followed. It left the impression of a lifelong creative engagement with the sea that remained, inevitably, unresolved.
At the time of Turner’s death in 1851, only a handful of his original works had traveled across the Atlantic but his influence among American artists was profound. Some saw them on trips to Great Britain while others viewed only his more widely disseminated prints.
American identity was deeply intertwined with first-hand experiences of the sea, and artistic expressions of exposure to unrestrained nature—as in popular literary works by Poe, Cooper, Melville and Dana—were perceived as inherently American. Turner’s artistic legacy resounded with America’s most prominent painters well into the twentieth century, and continues unabated today. James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s admiration of Turner is evident in his Crepuscule in Flesh Colour and Green: Valparaiso in which the painter employs subtle harmonies of color and their suggestive mood to evoke the feeling of twilight.
The extraordinary quality of the works gathered together for Turner & the Sea confirms the artist’s status as the pre-eminent painter of water, and demonstrates his unique ability to represent the elemental power of the sea. The exhibition features items on loan from some of the world’s most prestigious artistic institutions including: Tate Britain, Yale Center for British Art, British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Kimbell Art Museum and National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Turner & the Sea was produced by the National Maritime Museum, part of Royal Museums Greenwich, London. Supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. Made possible by the East India Marine Associates of the Peabody Essex Museum.
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Venice: The Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore (1834). National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Widener Collection.
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Fishermen at Sea (exhibited 1796) © Tate, London 2014. Purchased 1972
Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 (1822-1824). © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Greenwich Hospital Collection.
I hope to see you here, May 31 to September 1, 2014.