IF YOU were forced to choose but a single word to describe the works of English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), it might well be "sublime."
"Reflections of Sea and Light: Paintings and Watercolors by J.M.W. Turner" is the first exhibition of Turner's work in the United States for more than a decade. The show, which is currently at the Baltimore Museum of Art, includes more than 100 sublime Turners from London's Tate Gallery. A number of them are on public view for the first time.
In the 19th century, the sublime was a much-discussed concept that Turner's work epitomized. Political philosopher Edmund Burke, who wrote a treatise on the subject, likened its effect to that of the overpowering sun. And although water is everywhere in the canvases at this show, the sun has the starring role. Setting, rising, or hidden by clouds, the sun is the central presence in nearly every picture, providing proof that Turner's rendering of light is unsurpassed.
The show's crowning example is the major oil "Yacht Returning to Harbour," where the viewer is drawn inextricably toward the radiance of a white sun on the horizon. Turner's skill with light is shown to more subtle effect in "A Harbour at Sunrise, Possibly Margate," printed here. The clouded sun displays its power impressionistically in red dapples on the sea.
Indeed, Turner's impressionistic treatment of landscape has caused his work to be viewed as the first leap toward modern sensibility. "All that is vital in modern art was born out of the revelation of Turner," observed art critic Haldane Mefall in the 1920s.
But this exhibition reveals that those compositions that appear modern to a 21st-century eye were to Turner merely unfinished sketches, artistic shorthand. They were never intended as stylistic innovation.
Born into humble circumstances, Turner lived to paint. He would lie in a boat for hours, watching the sky. Once he even had himself lashed to a mast, to observe a storm at sea. But in the end, the master of the most elusive elements in nature water and light came to this famed, quiet conclusion: "The sun," he said, "is God."
'Reflection of Sea and Light: Paintings and Watercolors by J.M.W. Turner' is at the Baltimore Museum of Art until May 26.