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  • Writer's pictureJoel Popadics

J.M.W. Turner: Watercolors From Tate

“I always paint what I see,” said Turner; yet no painter ever departed further from close imitation or took more liberties with his subject. He elongated steeples, reconstructed buildings, changed the course of rivers, even outdid Joshua and changed the course of the sun. Yet Ruskin says Turner was sincere in thinking that he painted what he saw; that he seemed to be “swept along as by a dream,” and the changes he made “came into his head involuntarily.”

George H. Opdyke - As quoted from his book Art and Nature Appreciation

"Venice: San Giorgio Maggiore - Early Morning" c1819 by JMW Turner

The period between 1750-1880 was known as the “Great Age of British Watercolors.” That era produced some of the greatest watercolorists of all time, including Alexander Cozens, John Robert Cozens, Thomas Girtin, John Constable, John Sell Cotman, David Cox, and James Abbott McNeil Whistler, to name a few. But, by far, the most notable painter was Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851).

In partnership with Tate, London, the Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut is presenting J.M.W. Turner: Watercolors from Tate. The exhibition opened on October 5, 2019 and will continue through February 23, 2020. It will only appear in North America at Mystic and features works from Turner’s “Bequest.” John Ruskin, the famous art critic, watercolorist and social commentator was instrumental in preserving Turner’s Bequest and his legacy. The entire collection includes 300 oil paintings, 280 sketchbooks, and 30,000 drawings/watercolors that Turner willed to the British nation. The show is made up of 97 works, mostly watercolor, and features several large paintings juxtaposed with smaller, unfinished works and sketches.

I was honored to have presented a special watercolor workshop in collaboration with the exhibition. It included a gallery walk where I gave my unique perspective as an artist regarding Turner’s life and his watercolor process.

From a very young age Turner aspired to be an artist. The son of a barber, he entered the Royal Academy of Schools, Britain’s first art school, in 1789. A year later, at 15 years old, he exhibited his first watercolor at the Academy - A View of the Archbishop’s Palace, Lambeth. Under noted artists, he trained as a typographical draughtsman colorizing prints and creating watercolors for architects that helped clients visualize proposed projects.

Turner was captivated with boats and the sea his entire life. It was said that he lashed himself to a ship’s mast during a great tempest in order to capture the raging sea. The exhibition has a good representation of his other favorite subjects — mountains, architecture, bridges, waves, coastal scenes and gentle pastoral vistas.

The show is broken down into seven themes:

  1. Turner and the Sea

  2. From Architecture to Landscape: Early Work

  3. Nature and the Ideal: England c. 1805-15

  4. Home & Abroad: 1815-30

  5. Light & Color

  6. The Annual Tourist 1830-40

  7. Master & Magician

The paintings are basically arranged in chronological order and it’s fascinating to see the artist develop over the years. More importantly, you’ll gather insight into his thoughts and approach to watercolor.

"Interior of a Prison" c1805 by JMW Turner

Interior of a Prison is a work in gouache (white mixed with watercolor) and you can see that he was also master of a medium that he once described as “beastly stuff.” He painted it when he was 30 years old and shows off his skills as a draughtsman and knowledge of perspective. Two years later he will take a position at the Royal Academy as Professor of Perspective, which he will keep for next 30 years.

“Your business Winsor is to make color. Mine is to use them” was Turner’s brusque reply to William Winsor (founder of Winsor & Newton paints) who was critical of Turner’s use of non-permanent pigments. Which may explain why the gallery lights in Mystic are so dim; I guess the curator was fearful that the ultraviolet light will fade the “delicate” watercolors? Perhaps this is true of certain pigments, but I think watercolors are more durable than commonly thought. Considering these paintings are two hundred years old, they are in remarkably great shape.

Historians speculate whether Turner worked directly from nature; which was a trend during his lifetime. People who knew him, recount that he worked up detailed drawings on the spot and then he would return to the studio (or to his room while traveling) and color-in the rest from memory. The curator points out that some scholars think that his watercolor, The River Thames and Kew Bridge, was painted en Plein air, but I have a hunch he did a lot more.

My personal favorite from the show is Venice: San Giorio Magggiore – Early Morning which was painted in 1819 at the age of 44. As the painting’s description points out — it was painted with Contre-jour Effect (French for "against daylight”). Simply put, he painted the landscape looking in the direction of the sun. It has high contrast and everything is reduced into simple silhouette shapes. Most of the detail is eliminated and the watercolor looks as if it was painted with just three or four layers. It also marks the beginning of a more transparent approach to watercolor that Turner would incorporate into his work for the remainder of his career.

As we meander through the gallery, we soon realize that many of the watercolors are incomplete or perhaps experiments gone awry. For that reason, I assume it was never meant to be seen by the public. As an artist I have always felt that if it’s signed, I want you to see it. If not, I don’t want you to see it. I searched for signatures, but scarcely saw any. However, I welcomed seeing Turner’s raw ideas and abandoned efforts. In oils you can always wipe out a mistake and restart but it’s different in watercolor, we leave a paper trail and it's encouraging to know that he struggled, too.

Before you see the exhibition, check out Mike Leigh’s 2014 film Mr. Turner which was based on Turner’s life. It’s a good movie that’s beautifully filmed and conveys a great mood. It’ll give you additional background about the artist.

Leave me a comment below, I’d like to hear your thoughts about the show.

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