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Art review: J. M. W. Turner at the DMA
by Jerome Weeks 19 Feb 2008

Peace – Burial at Sea, oil, 1842 __________________________________________________ More about J. M. W. Turner on KERA Arts + Culture:  Painting images and the advance feature on the exhibition Think interview with DMA curator Dorothy Kosinski and Ian Warrell, editor of the exhibition catalog and a curator at Tate Britain Article on curator Dorothy Kosinski in Washington, D.C. […]


Peace - Burial at Sea, oil painting by J. M. W. Turner

Peace – Burial at Sea, oil, 1842



More than 150 years after his death, the British painter J. M. W. Turner remains popular as a precursor to the Impressionists. His atmospheric swirls and colors make some of his work feel very modern to us, and there are plenty of canvases like that in the current exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art: hazy canals in Venice, gorgeous, misty seasides.  

But the scale of this new show is monumental. Called simply J. M. W. Turner, it manages to put Turner back into his Victorian period as a painter of historical scenes and wartime memorials and political statements — while showing him towering above his era at the same time. The 136 watercolors and oil paintings are drawn from the Tate Britain in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and they include some of Turner’s masterpieces, some never shown before in America. It is, as they say, a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition. 

Keelmen heaving in coals by night, JMW Turner

Keelman heaving in coals by moonlight, oil, 1835 

We get to see Turner’s first oil painting, and we can hardly miss his largest one  –  a whopper that takes up an entire gallery wall. The show has both of Turner’s dramatic depictions of the burning of Parliament in 1834. It has whispy watercolor studies, epic shipwrecks and historic scenes of ancient Rome. This is Turner showing the Victorians just what a landscape artist can do, just how magnificent a landscape can be.

Turner was haunted by certain vistas, coming back to them repeatedly. We see very different views of Norham Castle, for instance, as Turner moves beyond realism into the loose, splashy style of his mature years. The watercolor by the young artist is hushed and detailed. The later oil painting has an electric shimmer, as if the world were slowly taking shape from the sun rising through the fog. The first painting is an 18th-century landscape; the second is a vision.

Claude Lorraine was an earlier French master whom Turner admired. He is said to have been the first European artist to paint the sun directly into one of his landscapes. It was a daring feat to pull off convincingly. Turner topped him by owning the sun, making it his personal symbol. We might say, Turner’s paintings are so bright, we need sunglasses. Certainly, the artist was mocked during his life for shoveling on so much yellow pigment. It became a cliche to say that light was the great energy source in Turner’s work. But it’s a creative and destructive source. Light burnishes the world in gold and incinerates it into black ash. As you go through the exhibition, it’s impossible not to follow the sun as it changes and grows, gleams and burns — and as it dims.

Like the sun’s rise and fall, the DMA’s show follows an arc, with the last paintings steeped in deluge and despair. In all of Turner’s work, even his loveliest countrysides, human beings are little creatures dwarfed by titanic forces. By the end, we‘re not even that, we are remnants, charred and drowned. From his rendering of a steamship lost in a blizzard to the somber sea burial of a fellow painter, Turner’s tragic vision is what separates him from many of the impressionists and pointillists who followed. Turner is bigger than summer picnics or fishermen on the shore, bigger than theories of light and color. Turner didn’t capture just the sun; he stared into the darkness as well.

Forget King Tut, the much ballyhooed, commercial show coming to the museum this fall. Turner is the great achievement at the Dallas Museum of Art this year. Turner is the one to see. 

 Death on a Pale Horse, oil painting by J. M. W. Turner

Death on a Pale Horse, oil, c. 1825-1835

  • Sterling Lauer

    Great review by Jerome Weeks! He explains the genius of Turner within the context of the period, and helps viewers seek out these aspects in the paintings. Although I saw the show at the NG in DC, I’m motivated to see it again because Weeks pointed out some things I overlooked.

  • Beautiful paintings! I wish I still did some traditional art… its all computer graphics since school 🙁

  • Pingback: The new Center for Creative Connections at the DMA()

  • I am very interested in the connection between Turner and Claude, especially during the first trips Turner made to Italy. I have created a link to your post, for which I thank you.

    But now I am not certain I have cited your views correctly. You wrote “It became a cliche to say that light was the great energy source in Turner’s work. But it’s a creative and destructive source”. What was the destructive part of Turner’s light?

  • Jen

    Just stumbled upon this during a bit of research for an article I’m writing about Turner and Rome. Tremendously insightful little review and beautifully composed. Many thanks for illuminating Turner’s light.