MFA Boston Presents Landmark Exhibition of 100+ Works by J. M. W. Turner

On View in Boston, the Final Exhibition Venue, from March 27–July 10, 2022

BOSTON (February 8, 2022)—Opening at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), this spring, Turner’s Modern World brings together more than 100 works by one of Britain’s greatest artists, including paintings, watercolors, drawings and sketchbooks from museums across the U.S. and Great Britain. What made J. M. W. Turner modern—his dedication to timely subjects and new modes of depiction—also makes his art vital to our moment. Many of the themes explored in his dramatic compositions are as urgent today as they were some two centuries ago: abolition and the legacy of slavery, the human cost of war, voting rights and the question of who should govern, new technology and the worker, and industry versus the environment. The crux of this landmark exhibition is the artist’s masterpiece Slave Ship (1840), a stinging indictment of the transatlantic slave trade, only on view at the MFA. Boston is the third and final venue for Turner’s Modern World, following London’s Tate Britain and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, and the only place visitors can see Slave Ship in a thrilling new context.

Turner (1775–1851) lived through a tumultuous period. He witnessed wars, revolutions, social reforms and massive technological innovations that transformed the world around him. Reacting to these changes, he began painting in a radical new manner—a modern manner. His exploration of luminous color was unparalleled, and his innovative brushwork anticipated by decades the loose strokes of the Impressionists in the 1870s and the gestural paint handling of the Abstract Expressionists in the 1940s and ’50s. Turner’s Modern World investigates how one painter—more than any of his artist contemporaries—embraced changing times and committed to capturing them with a bold, distinctive approach.

To encourage new discourse and reflection upon Turner’s work some 170 years after the artist’s death, the MFA has enlisted a range of collaborators to introduce contemporary perspectives throughout the galleries. An audio tour—with contributions from experts including author and photographer Teju Cole and New Bedford Whaling Museum curator Naomi Slipp—provides deeper context for 12 works. Several in-gallery videos make important connections to prompt conversation and encourage close looking, including one focused on Slave Ship. New insights into the painting from artist Musa Harar, MFA trustee Sylvia Simmons and Brandeis University professor Nancy Scott accompany in-depth interpretation of Turner’s masterpiece. Additional films feature discussion about what makes Turner modern—and what that means today—along with Turner’s watercolor technique. These elements not only enhance understanding of the works on display, but also prompt visitors to consider connections to current issues and the role an artist can play in advocating for change.

Turner’s Modern World is on view at the MFA from March 27 through July 10, 2022 in the Ann and Graham Gund Gallery. Member Preview takes place March 24–26. Timed-entry exhibition tickets, which include general Museum admission, are required for all visitors and can be reserved on starting February 2 for MFA members and February 9 for the general public.

“Turner's Modern World” is generously supported by The Manton Foundation, Carolyn and Peter Lynch and the Lynch Foundation. This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional support from the Cordover Exhibition Fund, the MFA Associates / MFA Senior Associates Exhibition Endowment Fund, the Alexander M. Levine and Dr. Rosemarie D. Bria-Levine Exhibition Fund, and an anonymous funder. 

“Turner's Modern World” is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in association with Tate Britain and the Kimbell Art Museum. The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

“This exhibition presents J.M.W. Turner as never before. A visionary and radical artist who was unique among his peers, Turner responded to the moment with urgency, using his art to advance justice during one of society’s most tumultuous periods,” said Matthew Teitelbaum, Ann and Graham Gund Director. “This is the first-ever Turner exhibition at the MFA, and we look forward to seeing how our visitors engage with the full spectrum of his work—paintings and works on paper that are as fresh and relevant today as they were during the artist’s lifetime.”

The MFA’s presentation was organized by Frederick Ilchman, Mrs. Russell W. Baker Curator of Paintings and Chair, Art of Europe, and Julia Welch, Assistant Curator of Paintings, Art of Europe, with Cara Wolahan, Department Coordinator, Art of Europe. The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue, Turner’s Modern World, produced by Tate Publishing.

Exhibition Overview

The exhibition is organized thematically into seven sections. The first, Early Works, follows Turner’s observations of contemporary life beginning in the 1790s. Sourced from the many sketchbooks he filled during trips around Europe, Turner’s drawings and watercolors record machinery, technology and working people. The Interior of a Cannon Foundry (1797–98, Tate), for example, depicts an industry vital for Britain’s defense against the French, showing workers casting cannons. Spectacular landscape also captured Turner’s imagination during his travels. A major painting from this period, the MFA’s Fall of the Rhine at Schaffhausen (about 1805–06) expresses the force of the famous waterfall in the Swiss Alps. In the foreground, a mother rushes to protect her child from fighting carthorses, underscoring the insignificance of human concerns before the power of nature—a theme very much to Turner’s taste. The young artist made his mark in London by showing large landscapes such as this one at the Royal Academy’s annual exhibitions.

Britain was at war for most of the first half of Turner’s life, from the French Revolutionary Wars in the 1790s and the War of 1812 to the Napoleonic Wars that continued until 1815. The section Home Front addresses life and work in Britain before, during and after these wars. Although Turner never served in the military, he was keenly aware of the impact that conflicts had on his country. His own motivations, however, are not always clear. While some works hint at the inequalities in British society, others—such as the 11-foot-wide England: Richmond Hill, on the Prince Regent’s Birthday (exhibited 1819, Tate), his largest painting to date—openly court royal patronage. This section also features Turner’s reflections on Britain’s canal-building boom. His enthusiasm for the waterways is evident in many of his oils and watercolors, yet his images are sometimes enigmatic. Chichester Canal (about 1828, Tate), for instance, depicts the sun setting on a waterway that was intended to join a navigation system linking London and the south coast, but turned out to be a disastrous investment for its supporters. The work seems both to lament the site as a commercial failure and to delight in the tranquil landscape that the venture produced.  

The section War and Peace employs a dramatic salon hang evoking Royal Academy exhibitions. Turner’s representations of military conflicts range from earlier works that glorify war to later paintings that emphasize compassion for suffering and death on all sides. A picture that was praised as the “first British epic,” The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the “Victory” (1806–08, Tate) commemorates the country’s triumph over French and Spanish naval forces. In Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (exhibited 1812, Tate), Turner comments on current campaigns by depicting distant history—drawing parallels between the conquests of Hannibal, ruler of ancient Carthage, and Napoleon’s recent traverse of the Alps. By the time Turner painted the more somber Field of Waterloo (exhibited 1818, Tate), three years after Napoleon’s final defeat, the artist’s political stance seems to have changed. In this nocturnal scene, he neither celebrates victory nor takes his country’s side, showing instead war’s catastrophic consequences for both the French and British.

Turner found political meaning even in unlikely topics, such as the ancient city of Venice—a once-great naval empire then in decay. In his watercolors and paintings of the city, featured in the section Venice as Allegory, Turner treats his subject as a city dissolved in light. In the unfinished painting Venice with the Salute (about 1840–45, Tate), he obscures the familiar landmark of the monumental Baroque church, cloaking it in the fugitive effects of atmosphere. This mirage-like quality reinforces the reality that Venice, once the dominant power in the eastern Mediterranean, had lost its independence and now lay under Austrian control. These Venice views stand in contrast with Turner’s depictions of Britain’s flourishing industrial economy and function as a sobering admonition to viewers.

Turner became increasingly liberal during his lifetime, and his works contain more references to progressive issues than any other painter of his day. The section Causes and Campaigns includes paintings that address parliamentary reform, freedom of expression, and the abolition of slavery. The centerpiece, Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – a Typhoon Coming On) (exhibited 1840) is an impassioned visual polemic that depicts the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade. By the start of the 19th century, it is estimated that British ships had transported 3.1 million enslaved people from Africa to colonies in the Caribbean, North and South America and other countries. Turner’s painting was likely inspired by a notorious incident in 1781 when the crew of the disease-ridden slave ship Zong forced 133 captives overboard to drown in order to collect insurance money for those “lost at sea.” 

Steam power was the defining technological advancement of Turner’s lifetime. The section Steam and Speed features his depictions of steamboats and railways, including Staffa, Fingal’s Cave (about 1831–32, Yale Center for British Art), his first image of a steamboat and his first painting to come to the U.S. The works by Turner in this section are widely admired for exemplifying 19th-century modernity and celebrating innovation, yet they also hint at a nostalgia for untouched nature. In Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steam Boats of Shoal Water (1840, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute), bystanders look on helplessly as a powerful storm pounds the shoreline and the fate of the steamships hangs in the balance.

The exhibition’s last section, Modern Painter, highlights Turner’s development of a new pictorial language to reflect the time in which he lived. His brushwork became increasingly adventurous in his final decade, giving greater prominence to the effects of light and atmosphere. The remarkably loose paint handling in these works, many of which were in fact left unfinished, anticipates later artistic movements. Turner experimented by moving beyond rectangular formats, employing square, circular or octagonal frames. He exhibited subjects in pairs—one such grouping was Peace – Burial at Sea (exhibited 1842, Tate) and War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet (exhibited 1842, Tate). He worked in extensive series, including one of whaling ships, examples of which are brought together from the Tate and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In his final years, Turner’s modernity was expressed not only in his choice of subjects, but also in his revolutionary approach to the very act of painting.

Additional Content


Amelia Kantrovitz