England’s splashiest Victorian-era painter comes to de Young


By Michael Raffety

June 29, 2015

J.M.W. Turner, as he is widely known, has been widely hailed as an artist with a special view of the world around him. Often he is cast as a precursor to the Impressionist painters of the late 19th century. Because he bequeathed 100 paintings to the state they have remained for later generations to study and enjoy.

Joseph Mallord William Turner entered the Royal Art Academy in 1789 at age 14. He became quite expert at depicting architecture. This facility with detail remained evident even as his painting style became freerer.

Colin P. Bailey, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco summed Turner’s oeuvre rather carefully in his forward to the catalog for the show, “JMW Turner: Painting Set Free”:

“The exhibition has two principal aims, and they are held in delicate balance. One is to argue against the idea that Turner was the first modern artist, and the other is to argue that he was a very modern artist.”

He was a spectacular virtuoso with a paint brush and his work appears to our modern eyes as impressionistic. Despite this appearance of free painting, one can see in his work it also is a reflection of his time, principally the Victorian era. Born in 1775, Turner lived to age 76, dying in 1851, nearly the last of his contemporaries.

He became an official member of the Royal Academy in 1802, a position he cherished. During the annual exhibits at the Royal Art Academy he looked forward to Varnishing Day when all the painters gathered to add finishing ouches o their displayed paintings.

Later in his life there was a proposal to do away with Varnishing Day.

“Then you will do away with the only social meeting we have,” Turner said, “the only occasions on which we come together in any unrestrained manner. When we have no varnishing days we shall not know one another.”

A famous incident from Varnishing Day that Sam Smiles, art history professor who is a research fellow at the Tate Museum in London, spoke about was also in the 2014 movie “Mr. Turner.” Turner had a painting of sailboats at sea on display. He applied a blob of red paint with his thumb and walked away, leaving his fellow artists in shock. He later came back with a rag and wiped away enough of the blob so that it became a buoy.

That painting, however, is not among the 65 paintings and watercolors on display at the de Young Museum in San Francisco now through Sept. 20.

The difference between the movie and this art show is that the movie covered the last 25 years of Turner’s life and this show covers he last 16 years of his life.

Sam Smiles and Amy Concannon of the Tate were the principal organizers of the show, which began at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The choice was to begin with the art Turner produced from the age 60 until his death. That era represents not just his maturity as a painter but a breakthrough to a new level of creativity. Turner completed some of his most impressive work during this time. Even his watercolors show a sense of freedom and at the same time show his talent as a draftsman and entrancing layers of color washes.

Despite what looks like freeform painting Turner was a financially successful artist. Though pilloried by critics At the time, he was popular with his fellow Academy members and helped younger members with advice, even adding painting touches that they appreciated.

The year before he died he entered three paintings that he had worked on simultaneously. They dealt with mythological subjects relating to Aeneas and Dido from the Aeneid by Virgil. It wasn’t his first painting with a mythological subject, but it was his last.

You might say he went out with an artistic bang.


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