“Turner’s Modern World” Brings a Visionary to Boston

Patron Program Committee

By Judith Ritchie, Patron Program Committee member

A major exhibition of British artist J. M. W. Turner’s work, organized by Tate Britain in association with the Kimbell Art Museum and the MFA, opens in Boston on March 27, 2022. “Turner’s Modern World” features more than 100 paintings, watercolors, drawings, and sketchbooks, including the MFA’s Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On) (1840), a painting not shown at the Tate’s or Kimbell’s presentations because it is too fragile to travel.

For those who know Turner’s work, it will be like seeing old friends again—and for those who do not, get ready to make some new ones.

Turner (1775–1851) was born in Covent Garden, London, to middle-class parents. He was a child prodigy and started his art education at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1789, when he was 14 years old. Starting in 1802 Turner traveled throughout Great Britain and Europe. He believed that travel was very important—that he needed to experience being at a place to paint it properly, to see and travel on the train to feel and record the sensation of speed, to be on a boat to know the feeling of floating on water.

On his travels, Turner made hundreds of sketchbooks, noting colors and the effects of the atmosphere. “My business is to paint what I see, not what I know is there,” he once said. He conveyed feeling by adding atmospheric effects with color. Oils and water-based paints were his primary media, but he also incorporated eggshells, spit, powders, and who knows what else to achieve his desired effect. In many of his works, color usurps the role of the subject. Light, color, and atmosphere shaped forms and are the subjects we look at today.

From Sir Joshua Reynolds, president of the Royal Academy, Turner learned to paint “the association of ideas.” Reynolds taught his students to portray “not the industry of the hands, but of the mind,” as quoted in Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses, and insisted that a successful painter “stands in need of more knowledge than is to be picked off his palette.” Turner took this advice and studied the technologies of science and engineering. He and his fellow artists would have great discussions with scientists and engineers from the Royal Academy of Science, which was next door to the Royal Academy of Art.

Turner’s work conveys a history of Britain and the parts of the world he was able to visit. We see depictions of battles and commentary on the government, racial inequality, and society, as well as the everyday lives of everyday people.

He depicted the past and present unlike any other artist of his time. He modernized the sublime with movement: smoke bellowing off trains, the ferocity of ocean waves, and the heat of the sun all appear in movement because of his paint strokes and the way he applied color. His technique was new to his time; no one else was painting like him. He was laughed at, called a fraud—but he continued to paint as he saw life and how he saw light. “I don’t paint so that people will understand me. I paint to show what a particular scene looks like,” Turner said.

Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), one of Turner’s most celebrated works, is based both on an 18th-century poem about a slave ship caught in a typhoon and on the true story of the Zong, a British ship whose captain threw sick and dying enslaved people overboard so that he could collect insurance money.

Let’s take a look at this painting. We are drawn into this work by the sun and its reflection of the sight before it. Horror! We know something is wrong. The color gray warns us. Death? What will survive? Will the ship make it? There is a white angel with yellow wings. Is it Judgment Day? What is the rightful end to a ship that engages in such horrors? How can Turner paint the beauty of such a sky when tragedy lies below? Is Turner painting Hope?

Turner died in his bedroom overlooking the River Thames, which he painted many times. According to The Oxford Companion to J.M.W. Turner, “The late-autumn weather was rather gloomy during Turner’s final decline but the sun is said to have brightened the artist’s bedroom about an hour before the moment of death.” Turner invited us to see the light of the sun and its effects on the landscape as a necessary part of life.

Turner was truly ahead of his time and his art lives on today. In 1966 Sir Lawrence Cowing, art critic and curator, said that Turner’s later works “reveal potentialities in painting that did not reappear until our time.”

I could tell you more about the works in “Turner’s Modern World,” but I don’t want to spoil the surprise. Come take a look for yourself starting March 27, 2022. And as you observe, remember: Turner was painting what he felt, not just what he saw.

Patrons are invited to the upcoming “Turner’s Modern World” Virtual Celebration on Tuesday, May 24, 2022, where you can hear from exhibition curators Frederick Ilchman, Chair and Mrs. Russell W. Baker Curator of Paintings; and Julia Welch, assistant curator, Paintings, Art of Europe.