A visionary use of light

British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner was devoted to the idea of a central light source at the heart of his canvases.

Beyond the turbulent seas of many of his maritime paintings, the dramatic storms of his nature pictures, and the crises embodied in his history works, the 19th-century British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner developed a single motif that most impresses on the memory: the Turneresque sun (or sometimes the moon) as the focus of the canvas, radiating brilliantly modulated light and a kind of symbolic illumination over all.

Whether or not Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) actually stated, "The sun is God" near the end of his life is disputed by historians. What is unarguable is his devotion to the idea of the central light source at the heart of the canvas, often shining over water, an idea he is thought to have originally derived from the 17th-century landscape painter Claude Lorrain.

It is this rendering of light and other atmospheric effects such as fog and mist – Turner's "exalting experiences of light and color," as described by art writer Graham Reynolds – that ultimately wows the viewer more than the sound and fury of many of his most dramatic subjects. For example, in "Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight" (1835) (pictured here), the moon bathes the water in mother-of-pearl illumination, creating an uncanny mood that one critic described as "neither night nor day."

Many such canvases of serene beauty are included in "J.M.W. Turner," a major new exhibition of the artist's work at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Yet this is also a show that reveals Turner's verve in executing a dramatic subject.

Paintings such as "Snowstorm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps" (1812), the monumental "The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805" (1823-24), and two versions of the "Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834" (1835) seize attention with charged subject matter – proof of one reason Turner is the most widely recognized painter in the history of British art.

But the treatment of light in such canvases as "Regulus" (1828), "The Field of Waterloo" (1818), and the "Angel Standing in the Sun" (1846) prove Turner to be not just a capable craftsman who knew how to grab an audience, but an artistic visionary whose subtle rendering of light and color amount to a kind of revelation.

This exhibit includes a number of pictures that have never been shown in the United States. It covers the range of Turner's work, from his early but masterful watercolors through his major treatments of historical subjects up to his final pictures, which edge toward abstraction, paving the way for developments in modern art.

Turner was the son of a barber whose shop in the Covent Garden area of London placed the artist at an early age in the vicinity of the maritime scenery of the Thames. He began his career – at the age of 15 – by exhibiting watercolors, a medium he soon mastered and to which he would remain attached for the rest of his career.

While always considering himself an outsider from the artistic establishment and often regarded by others as an eccentric, Turner actually joined the Royal Academy at the young age of 26. His first submitted oil painting, "Fishermen at Sea" (1796) was described by Benjamin West, then president of the Academy, as "what Rembrandt thought but couldn't do."

Soon after he started to paint in oils, Turner began to assimilate into his paintings the widely discussed 18th-century ideas about what constituted "the sublime." One such concept was man's insignificance in the face of nature. Turner conveyed this notion to a marked degree in canvases such as "Snowstorm: Hannibal," where even as powerful a human figure as Hannibal is dwarfed by a wave of storm clouds that Turner expert William Gaunt described as a "whirlpool of atmosphere."

Turner benefited greatly from his annual practice of traveling in Britain and later abroad during the summer to discover landscape subjects that he could develop into paintings. In fact, the storm in "Snowstorm: Hannibal" is actually thought to be a transcription of weather he had observed in the north of England a year or so prior to painting the picture.

During his career, Turner produced as many as 30,000 sketches and studies, which have only recently begun to be understood in the context of his work as a whole.

Some of these studies – and even finished works in the later part of his career – are believed by some art historians to be indications that Turner anticipated such modern art movements as Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism.

In his highly respected late series of Swiss watercolors, Turner brought the use of the medium to its apex with works like "Lake of Zug: Early Morning, 1843," which have an ethereal beauty that leans toward abstraction.

Also in Turner's late oils of the 1830s and '40s, form becomes more diffuse. "In his late works, even static forms like architecture dissolve in light," the critic John Walker observed.

However, when Turner was asked to explain his late semi-abstract works in his own words, he had only this to say: "Atmosphere is my style."

• The show will remain on exhibit at the National Gallery of Art until Jan. 6, 2008. Then it travels to the Dallas Museum of Art, Feb. 10–May 18, 2008; and to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, June 24–Sept. 21, 2008.

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