J.M.W. Turner as Painter of the Modern World at the Kimbell Art Museum

by Ruben Cordova January 31, 2022
A gestural painting with thick impasto paint in bright yellows and oranges depicting a fire burning the building of Houses and Lords and Commons in London.

J.M.W. Turner, “The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834” (detail), 1835, oil on canvas, Cleveland Museum of Art. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

Great Britain has not produced a significant share of Europe’s greatest artists. Pre-contemporary painters tended to be conservative and stodgy, sometimes even defiantly retardataire (see my Glasstire review of Pre-Raphaelites and their contemporaries). J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) and John Constable (1776-1837), two British artists who are regarded among the greatest painters the nation produced, were both innovators who also influenced the course of nineteenth century art. Turner, who approached a higher degree of abstraction than his European contemporaries, is deemed the most forward-looking British artist — or at least the one who appeals the most to modern sensibilities. He is the subject of a major exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. Turner’s Modern World, which features 113 works in various media (39 are oil paintings; the rest are works on paper), situates the artist in the context of modernity. 

Entrance to the Exhibition "Turner's Modern World" on view at the Kimbell Museum. The image shows a table with a vase of flowers in the foreground, and a large scale, gestural painting of a nautical scene in the background

Entrance to “Turner’s Modern World.” Photo: Ruben C. Cordova

Turner is sometimes decontextualized and misrepresented as the first Impressionist or the first abstract artist. Turner’s Modern World offers a corrective to such views by situating him in his proper historical context. As the Kimbell’s director Eric M. Lee and the Museum of Fine Art, Boston’s director Matthew Tietelbaum note in their joint introduction to the catalog, Turner’s lifetime

… spanned the Industrial Revolution and the Steam Age, the Napoleonic Wars and the expansion of the British Empire, and political reform and technological advances that transformed society and shaped the modern world across the globe. Turner’s Modern World reveals that he was unique among painters of his era for responding to these contemporary developments, not just as an observer, but as an interpreter whose images spoke for his age. 

(The catalogue, Turner’s Modern World, is co-authored by David Blayney Brown, Amy Concannon, and Sam Smiles and is published by Rizzoli/Electa.)

The two directors note that Turner recognized the “dizzying” pace of change that he was witness to, and that his paintings possess “an undercurrent of radicalism, social as well as painterly” that reflects the artist’s empathy for suffering. The exhibition’s purpose, therefore, is not to round up the artist’s greatest hits, but rather to delve into the manifold ways in which Turner addressed the modern world he inhabited. The exhibition is literally all over the place: it spans Turner’s career; it features works in diverse media in vastly different scales; it features a whole range of techniques and degrees of finish; the subject matter is highly varied; Turner also depicted numerous geographical locales, including sites of momentous battles. 

Turner’s Modern World was years in the making. The Tate Britain, which originated this exhibition, does a Turner show every few years. A checklist of objects was drawn up by 2019. Curators from the Kimbell and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the two institutions that partnered on the exhibition, traveled to London to see the enormous cache of works on paper at the Tate. Unfortunately, the COVID epidemic threw a monkey wrench in the Tate’s plans. The Tate, which was the exhibition’s first venue, decided to forego loans from U.S. institutions, which hold some of Turner’s most important works. Consequently, for the iterations at the Kimbell and Boston, George T. M. Shackelford, Deputy Director of the Kimbell, and Frederick Ilchman, Chair, Art of Europe at the MFA Boston, selected and arranged loans from U.S. institutions. After the exhibition closes at the Kimbell on February 6, it will travel to Boston. 

Shackelford, who is the organizing curator of the exhibition at the Kimbell, gave me this comment about the exhibition’s reception: 

I have been really gratified at the reaction to the exhibition here, not only from the people I’ve toured through the show but also from people who I encounter, for example, on Facebook. They are, every last one of them, thrilled by what they have seen. The critical response has been just that — thrilling. 

For Shackelford’s overview of the exhibition, see his lecture at the Kimbell: Inaugural Lecture: Turner’s Modern World (2021). 

The Industrial Revolution

An image of a drawing in a sketchbook of the interior of a workshop where anchors are forged.

J.M.W. Turner, “Interior of a Forge Making Anchors” (Wilson Sketchbook), 1796, watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper, Tate Britain, London. Photo: screenshot from the Kimbell’s “Friday Evening Lecture: The Making of ‘Turner’s Modern World’” (2021).

A loose, gestural painting of the interior of a canon foundry. The painting depicts the interior of a wood pier and beam structure with figures working in the center and lit by a fire on the right side of the painting.

J.M.W. Turner, “Interior of a Cannon Foundry” 1797-1798, graphite and watercolor on paper, Tate Britain, London, accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, D00873. Photo: © Tate, London, 2020.

Turner’s world isn’t always pretty. Sometimes a forge, a furnace, or a horse-shodding blacksmith takes center stage, as in the two illustrations above and the one below. Interior of a Forge Making Anchors and Interior of a Cannon Foundry are examples of Turner’s interest in the Industrial Revolution. For an excellent film on this subject, see the BBC’s The Genius of Turner: Painting The Industrial Revolution (2013), which treats science, technology and industry.

The two works illustrated above also relate directly to Britain’s navy, which was essential for achieving and maintaining military dominance in the nation’s far-flung empire. Britain was constantly at war in Turner’s lifetime, which is how it became — and remained — the supreme imperial power of its age. The catalogue notes that Turner’s industrial scenes fit Edmund Burke’s definition of the sublime: “whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror.”   

A scene in a blacksmith shop. A Blacksmith disputes the price of Iron, and another man shoes a horse.

J.M.W. Turner, “A Country Blacksmith Disputing upon the Price of Iron, and the Price Charged to the Butcher for Shoeing his Poney” (detail, cropped on all sides), exhibited 1807, oil on mahogany, Tate Britain, London. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

I have cropped this painting (especially the topmost dark third) in order to make the tools, animals, foodstuffs, and human actions more legible. A genre scene such as this one — with its obsessive attention to detail — could have been painted centuries before: perhaps Turner even alludes to Rembrandt with his dark, somber colors, the grizzled features of the butcher with his red cap, and his use of impasto (especially in the details rendered in white paint). The title of Turner’s painting underscores a contemporary event: after 1806, crude iron was taxed to pay the government’s war debts. 

One of the exhibition’s themes is industrial transformation, including that from equine power to steam power. The best work to contrast to the above painting is Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844), which depicts a train speeding across a bridge in the direction of the spectator. Unfortunately, the painting has conservation problems (poor paint adhesion). After almost a year at the Tate’s Turner exhibition, it returned to its tempietto-like gallery at London’s National Gallery, rather than to the exhibition venues in the U.S., as did The Fighting Temeraire (1839). The latter won polls as Britain’s most popular painting, and in 2020 it appeared in the background of the £20 bank note (behind an image of Turner). 

The Slave Ship (1840) is too fragile (also due to paint adhesion problems) to travel from Boston. These three key paintings are represented at the Kimbell in reproduction, and the latter two are discussed and illustrated in this review. 

A photo of a museum visitor taking a photo of a 20 pound bill in front of a painting by JMW Turner

Snapchat Turner phone app with £20 bank note and J.M.W. Turner’s “The Fighting Temeraire” (1839). Photo: PR Week.

Ever after witnessing all the technological changes that took place during his lifetime, Turner would no doubt be amazed at the augmented reality enabled by the collaboration between Snapchat, the Bank of England, The National Gallery, and Tate Britain. See Ben Bold’s February 20, 2020 article in PR Week

 Turner and Human Figures

Photo of a painting by Turner of a large group of people in a pastoral scene

J.M.W. Turner, “England: Richmond Hill, on the Prince Regent’s Birthday” (detail of center foreground), exhibited 1819, oil on canvas, Tate Britain, London, accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, N00502. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

Turner’s human figures were wholly adequate for his small scenes of laborers, as in the three works that are illustrated above. But when it came to fancy pictures, they were massively deficient. In the above detail from a painting eleven feet long, Turner’s shortcomings as a flatterer of the aristocracy are readily apparent. He never managed to make the suave and impressive nobles and lords, nor the pretty, graceful ladies that elite patrons wanted (perhaps he would have fared better if van Dyck had not fatally spoiled aristocratic patrons). 

The Prince Regent (and future king) did not buy Turner’s birthday picture, nor did anyone else. For an over-ambitious, failed and uncompleted attempt at group portraiture in the Turner’s Modern World exhibition, see George IV at the Provost’s Banquet in the Parliament House, Edinburgh (c. 1822). Turner was never able to win royal patronage.

Both the birthday picture and the banquet picture are among the very large group of pictures that ultimately came to the Tate with the Turner Bequest. Turner, who willed his finished paintings to the National Gallery, wanted the bulk of his estate to benefit impoverished artists. Turner’s heirs successfully challenged his will: the state received all the art owned by Turner at his death (almost 300 paintings and about 30,000 sketches and watercolors), and the family received the rest of his estate. The National Gallery retained seven Turner paintings and the rest went to the Tate. Consequently, 83 of the 113 works at the Kimbell are borrowed from the Tate. See the National Gallery’s “The Turner Bequest” for more information. 

The crowds of people in Turner’s history paintings tend to be awkwardly rendered, sometimes bizarrely or absurdly so. Perhaps no highly regarded pre-modern painter (I place Turner just on the cusp of modernity) was so lacking in the ability to render the figure in a conventional manner. Could it be that — as would be the case with Cézanne and Braque — Turner’s lack of facility as a draftsman drove him to innovate? Had he been better with the figure, Turner would likely have found success with royals and other elite patrons, and he might have become a rather different — and much lesser — artist. 

Finish and Unfinish

Exhibition installation photo of five marine paintings.

J.M.W. Turner, Installation of a group of tempestuous marine paintings near the end of the exhibition. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

In my view, Turner — in his finished paintings (and this is a relative term) — is best when he fires blasts of chiaroscuro — with or without flashes of brilliant color (the latter is prominent in his paintings of conflagrations and sunsets). I return to two of the paintings in the above installation shot in the section called Stormy Weather. 

A painting by JMW Turner that is a scene of Venice with gestural brushstrokes and foggy pastel color.

J.M.W. Turner, “Venice with the Salute,” c. 1840-1845, oil on canvas, Tate Britain, London, accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

Paradoxically, Turner sometimes shines especially bright in his unfinished paintings, as in Venice with the Salute. Today’s viewers, of course, are accustomed to somewhat kindred works by artists such as Monet. His Ice Floes of 1893 is linked here. While Turner might seem to have pared his subject matter down to the barest minimum in the above painting, he was actually just getting started.

An exhibition installation view with two paintings on the right and left wall. Both are unfinished landscape paintings.

Installation shot with J.M.W. Turner’s “Venice Quay, Ducal Palace” (1844) and “Venice with the Salute” (c. 1840-1845), both oil on canvas, Tate Britain, London, accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

I think it’s a good thing that Turner didn’t keep working on Venice with the Salute, because it almost certainly would have become a much more ordinary painting, such as the one it is paired with in the above photograph. I don’t have much enthusiasm for Turner’s run-of-the-mill finished paintings. They’re tedious, and they all blend in together — at least in my memory.

A gestural painting with that depicts a figure falling off a horse. The figure is the metaphor of Anarchy

J.M.W. Turner, “The Fall of Anarchy (?)” (cropped on the left and at the bottom), c. 1833–34, oil on canvas, Tate Britain, London, accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, N05504. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

I absolutely love a bizarre, unfinished painting that might represent the fall of anarchy. Who knows what it was really meant to depict — hence the question mark in the title. The ghostly horse in the upper center of the picture is the most legible element, though it is nearly as evanescent as the mists from which it arises. A human skeleton is lying on the horse’s back with its arms outstretched and its skull pointing downward. Some tiny, classicizing domed buildings seemingly congeal out of clouds in the lower right-hand corner of the above detail. 

As unfinished paintings, Turner deemed Venice with the Salute and The Fall of Anarchy (?) (among many others) as unworthy gifts for the National Gallery. Notwithstanding his many innovative qualities as an artist, Turner still had some rather conventional ideas about just what constituted finish. One of his legacies (though perhaps not altogether deliberate) was to expand the parameters of what constituted “finish” and completion. 

Some paintings that the Impressionists themselves referred to as “sketches” are now regarded as quintessential monuments of that school. Cézanne — for whom every single painting from his mature period seemed to be an ordeal that required a campaign — was unable to bring many of his paintings to what he regarded as a satisfactory conclusion. Nonetheless, the works that Turner and Cézanne considered to be “unfinished” served to push the boundaries of what constituted finish. Of course, we should also recall that even some “finished” paintings by Turner and Cézanne were mocked and derided by their conservative contemporaries, as well as by some subsequent observers.  

A very gestural painting by JMW Turner of a dark area next to a yellow and orange organic shape depicting burning blubber on paper

J.M.W. Turner, “Burning Blubber,” c. 1844–45, watercolor and pastel on paper, Tate Britain, London, accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, D35246. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

I am deeply entranced by a few of Turner’s most summary renderings. Among the works on paper in Turner’s Modern World, I especially like Burning Blubber, whose subject matter is all but indecipherable. It is one of the works that Rothko, who deeply admired Turner, saw at a Turner exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1966. 

So, when it comes to Turner’s art, give me full-blown Sturm und Drang — or give me the nineteenth-century equivalent of minimalism. 

War, Crisis, and Politics

a painting of the ruins of the Temple of Poseidon.

J.M.W. Turner, “The Temple of Poseidon at Sounion (Cape Colonna)” (detail), c. 1834, graphite, watercolor, and gouache on paper, Tate Gallery. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

Turner’s manner of addressing social issues is often so opaque that the titles of his paintings provide necessary clues (as was the case with A Country Blacksmith Disputing upon the Price of Iron, and the Price Charged to the Butcher for Shoeing his Poney). The Temple of Poseidon at Sounion is — at first glance — a picturesque vision of classical ruins and a Romantic depiction of nature inexorably wearing down the greatest human-made monuments. 

One has to look very closely to spot a sinking ship (in the center on the extreme left in the above detail), seemingly witnessed only by a pair of dogs or jackals. The label for this work references Lord Byron’s poem Don Juan, in which the poet dreams of a Greece liberated from Ottoman rule and mentions the Greek defeat of the Persian fleet at Salamis. The relief of Triton (Poseidon’s son) behind the canines serves as a clue that the distressed ship could symbolize an 1827 battle in which British, French, and Russian forces defeated an Ottoman fleet. Greece won its independence in 1830. This watercolor thus appears to be a cryptic statement in support of Greek independence. 

A field full of soldiers at night.

J.M.W. Turner, “The Field of Waterloo,” exhibited 1818, oil on canvas, Tate Britain, London, accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, N00500. Photo: © Tate, London, 2020.

The battle of Waterloo marked Britain’s decisive victory over Napoleon. Turner’s rendering of this battle, however, is the antithesis of the heroic and celebratory imperial triumphalism that nationalist patrons and audiences regarded as de rigueur

In Turner’s painting, the wives and lovers of soldiers from both sides of the battle are looking through the dead bodies, searching for their beloved. David Blayney Brown, former senior curator at the Tate Britain, calls it “a deeply tragic and terrible picture,” one that was “much attacked at the time” for its depiction of loss. (The Making of ‘Turner’s Modern World, Kimbell Art Museum, 2021).

I have skipped over The Battle of Trafalgar, as seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory (exhibited 1806; reworked 1808), which is a big, lumbering and clunky patriotic painting. Shackelford treats it in a short Kimbell video called War and Peace (2021) that addresses the military-themed paintings in Turner’s Modern World.

Painting that shows a large wave of a storm over an army

J.M.W. Turner, “Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps,” exhibited 1812, oil on canvas, Tate Britain, London, accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, N00490. Photo: © Tate, London, 2020.

Prior to Waterloo, Napoleon sometimes had a symbolic surrogate in Turner’s work. Hannibal, the Carthaginian general who crossed the Alps in 218 B.C. to battle Rome, is a cipher for Napoleon, who crossed the Alps in 1800 to defeat the Austrians. In David’s heroic portraits of Napoleon on a rearing horse (one example of which Turner saw in Paris in 1802), Hannibal’s and Charlemagne’s names are inscribed on rocks in the foreground, superseded by the larger BONAPARTE inscription. (See Ben Pollitt in Smart History.)

A painting of two figures kneeling on the ground over another lying prostrate.

J.M.W. Turner, “Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps” (detail), exhibited 1812, oil on canvas, Tate Britain, London. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

In this detail, one can see the resistance of the mountain people to Hannibal. The nude female in the foreground recalls victimized nude women in two later paintings by Delacroix, the Massacre at Chios (1824) and The Death of Sardanapalus (1827). 

Turner inverts the heroic scale David utilized in his equestrian portraits of Napoleon. One can barely make out Hannibal (or someone who stands for him) on an elephant, in the center background (luckily the elephant’s trunk is raised, or it might be mistaken for a distant rock). In Turner’s pictorial universe, even a mature elephant is insignificant in comparison to the grandeur of the Alps, and to the elements that cloak and envelop them. Finding the minuscule elephant in this painting is dramatized in a clip from director Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner (2014).

Turner was mightily concerned with the picture’s placement when it was first exhibited: he threatened to withdraw the painting if it was not hung on a lower level. See the commentary on the Tate’s website.

A gestural painting with deep reds, yellows and oranges of a ship caught in a sea disaster. Figures and ship parts are thrown violently into the frothing water.

J.M.W. Turner, “Disaster at Sea” (detail, cropped at left and top), c. 1835, oil on canvas, Tate Britain, London, accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, N00558. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

Turner’s never-exhibited and probably never-finished Disaster at Sea was his version of The Raft of the Medusa (it seems to reflect Géricault’s great painting, which was exhibited in London in 1822). Disaster at Sea likely references the wreck of the Amphitrite, which was transporting 108 women convicts and 12 children to a penal colony in Australia when it was driven onto a sandbank off Boulogne. Fearing the escape of his prisoner-passengers and lacking authorization to dock, the Amphitrite’s captain refused assistance from the French; all the passengers drowned when the ship broke up. 

A painting of the burning of a British government building. The painting depict the waves of fire blowing in the wind and reflecting in the river Thames.

J.M.W. Turner, “The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16 October, 1834,” c. 1834–35, oil on canvas, Cleveland Museum of Art. Photo: Cleveland Museum of Art.

Contemporaries viewed the burning of the houses of Parliament allegorically. Some cheered when the House of Lords collapsed. The Great Reform Act had been passed in these very buildings in 1832. The act increased the number of eligible voters from 366,000 to 650,000, but the latter number only represented 18 percent of adult males in England and Wales. The working class was still excluded, and corruption abounded. The destruction of Parliament was seen as a righteous destruction of the old order. In a similar manner, a succession of great Salon paintings by Géricault (The Charging Chasseur, 1812; The Wounded Cuirassier, 1814; The Raft of the Medusa, 1819) had also been read allegorically in France. 

detail of a painting showing a crowd of people standing in a landscape

J.M.W. Turner, “The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16 October, 1834” (detail of lower left corner), c. 1834–35, oil on canvas, Cleveland Museum of Art. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

The conflagration was a spectator sport. Shackelford informs me that it is — not surprisingly — one of the crowd-pleasers at the Kimbell. 

Turner depicts a multitude of spectators (the above detail is from the lower left corner of the picture). Turner himself watched the fire from a rented boat on the Thames. Naturally, he exaggerated the size of the flames in his painting.

Low tide hampered efforts to pump water to fight the fire, and also restricted steamers that towed equipment. Thus even industrial technology and might was still no match for nature. Turner depicts boats launching from the pier in the lower right corner of the painting. 

The Slave Ship

A painting by JMW Turner of a ship in the ocean and figures being thrown into the water and swallowed by the sea

J.M.W. Turner, “Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On),” c. 1840, oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova. (“Slave Ship” will only be exhibited in Boston.)

One of Turner’s most highly regarded paintings, Slave Ship almost instantly became a celebrated anti-slavery icon. For this painting, Turner synthesized a poem about a slave ship in a typhoon with the history of the Zong, a British slave ship that jettisoned more than 130 living African captives into the ocean in order to collect insurance money. 

For a short account of the horrible conditions on these slave ships, see the History Channel’s Life Aboard a Slave Ship (2019), which also deals briefly with the Zong. Slave Ship is too fragile to travel to the Kimbell, so it is represented in reproduction. It is also the subject of a Kimbell video called Turner’s “Slave Ship”: “Written upon the sky in lines of blood, girded with condemnation” (2022).

It features Nancy J. Scott, professor of fine arts, Brandeis University, and James Walvin, professor emeritus in history, University of York. They note that the trans-Atlantic slave trade continued illicitly, even though Britain had outlawed it in 1807, followed by the U.S. in 1808.  

Slave Ship’s first owner was none other than John Ruskin, the most influential art critic of all time. He was Turner’s friend and advocate — though he did not appreciate the artist’s industrial scenes, and he hated Turner’s nudes. Ruskin received Slave Ship as a gift from his father, John James Ruskin. 

Ruskin, who thought his painting was superlative, drew the following conclusion in Modern Painters (1843): 

I believe, if I were reduced to rest Turner’s immortality upon any single work, I should choose this. … the whole picture [is] dedicated to the most sublime of subjects and impressions —(completing thus the perfect system of all truth, which we have shown to be formed by Turner’s works) — the power, majesty, and deathfulness of the open, deep, illimitable Sea.

Ruskin commences his commentary on this painting with equally high praise: “But, I think, the noblest sea that Turner has ever painted, and, if so, the noblest certainly ever painted by man, is that of the Slave Ship….”

Ruskin’s prose is as much a document of Romanticism as Turner’s painting: 

It is a sunset on the Atlantic after prolonged storm; but the storm is partially lulled, and the torn and streaming rain-clouds are moving in scarlet lines to lose themselves in the hollow of the night. The whole surface of sea included in the picture is divided into two ridges of enormous swell, not high, nor local, but a low, broad heaving of the whole ocean, like the lifting of its bosom by deep-drawn breath after the torture of the storm. Between these two ridges, the fire of the sunset falls along the trough of the sea, dyeing it with an awful but glorious light, the intense and lurid splendor which burns like gold and bathes like blood. Along this fiery path and valley, the tossing waves by which the swell of the sea is restlessly divided, lift themselves in dark, indefinite, fantastic forms, each casting a faint and ghastly shadow behind it along the illumined foam.

Ruskin gives a remarkable description of the uneven surface of Turner’s sea, which devolves into a sanguinary condemnation of the slave ship:

They do not rise everywhere, but three or four together in wild groups, fitfully and furiously, as the under strength of the swell compels or permits them; leaving between them treacherous spaces of level and whirling water, now lighted with green and lamp-like fire, now flashing back the gold of the declining sun, now fearfully dyed from above with the indistinguishable images of the burning clouds, which fall upon them in flakes of crimson and scarlet, and give to the reckless waves the added motion of their own fiery flying. Purple and blue, the lurid shadows of the hollow breakers are cast upon the mist of the night, which gathers cold and low, advancing like the shadow of death upon the guilty ship as it labors amidst the lightning of the sea, its thin masts written upon the sky in lines of blood, girded with condemnation in that fearful hue which signs the sky with horror, and mixes its flaming flood with the sunlight, — and cast far along the desolate heave of the sepulchral waves, incarnadines the multitudinous sea.

Detail of a Painting by KMW Turner of a ship at sea where slavers throw slaves overboard into the water. The painting shows the ship being swallowed in colors of deep reds, oranges and yellows.

J.M.W. Turner, “Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On)” (detail of ship), c. 1840, oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova. (“Slave Ship” will only be exhibited in Boston.)

As Scott notes in the video linked above, the white flag with blue stripes in front of the ship could represent Buenos Aires, a potential destination for the illicit slave trade. 

Detail of slaves thrown overboard and being consumed by the ocean. Their shackled limbs are in the foreground of the painting

J.M.W. Turner, “Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On)” (detail of lower right corner), c. 1840, oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova. (“Slave Ship” will only be exhibited in Boston.)

In this detail, one can see a shackled leg jutting out of the water (it seems to be attached to a partially visible body floating at the bottom of the picture). Above it, black hands just manage to extend out of the ocean. Horrifyingly, a motley assortment of fish are devouring the still-living Africans. The fatality rate of slave ships was high, so, as Walvin notes, sharks followed slave ships from Africa. Sharks also greeted them upon their arrival in the Caribbean. 

Just to the right of the jutting leg, one can see the heads of swimming dogs. What are they doing in the picture? Scott explains that they are spaniels, and thus symbolically refer to Spanish ships that ran the British/U.S. blockade. 

Some of the million illicit enslaved people brought to the Americas after the trans-Atlantic trade bans were smuggled into U.S. slave states. James Bowie, widely regarded in Texas as one of the “heroes of the Alamo” (Texas politicians are working to compel public schools to continue teaching a “heroic” account of Texas, rather than one based on actual history) worked with the pirate Jean Lafitte to smuggle illicit enslaved people into Louisiana. Probably most of the 109 enslaved people that Bowie brought with him when he immigrated to Texas in 1830 had been smuggled. Bowie even unsuccessfully applied to the Mexican government for a land grant on Galveston Island, where Lafitte had been headquartered (thus he might also have become an actual sea-borne pirate instead of merely a land pirate). I discuss many aspects of slavery as it pertains to Texas in my catalogue The Other Side of the Alamo: Art Against the Myth (2018).

a detail of figures of slaves thrown into and being consumed by the ocean. Their shackles are visible.

J.M.W. Turner, “Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On)” (detail of lower left), c. 1840, oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova. (“Slave Ship” will only be exhibited in Boston.)

In the roiling waters on the left side of the picture, one can make out many desperate hands reaching above the waters, but perhaps only one head. It seems improbable that all these enslaved people would be pulled under simultaneously, with just their hands poking above the surface.  

Detail of the shackles around the limbs of slaves as they drown in the ocean.

J.M.W. Turner, “Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On)” (detail with chains protruding from the ocean waters), c. 1840, oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova. (“Slave Ship” will only be exhibited in Boston.)

In this detail, various fishes — ghostly presences in the translucent waters — seem to be striking at the struggling humans. Perhaps Turner wanted to convey the idea that — at this very instant — the very last of the cast-offs who were able to swim were now being pulled under by ravenous fish. Thus, all but one of the victims of the cruel slavers have taken their last breaths. (What I take to be the lone head is visible between the flag and the uppermost section of chains.) These last survivors are in the process of being shredded, eaten alive by sea creatures, their bones picked clean as they sink to their watery, mass grave.

Why are the chains so preposterously big and so gravity-defying that they seem to pop up out of the ocean like buoys? I think Turner needed a clear signifier for slavery, one that would literally pop out at the spectator. Even with the chains, one has to really concentrate to make out the many hands and the traces of the fishes that are underwater. Presumably for expressive purposes, some of these hands are very crudely rendered, such that they resemble three-toed dinosaur paws. Recall how crudely Turner rendered the spectators in the lower left corner of The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons

Turner, after all, was a landscape artist, and not much of a conventional figure painter. Géricault — a supreme painter of figures — would have made a very different rendition of this subject. Is it no wonder that Ruskin extols Turner’s seas and skies, rather than his hands, chains, and fish?   

John Taylor Johnston, the president of the Metropolitan Museum and the greatest of New York’s early art collectors, bought the Slave Ship in 1872. He lent it to the exhibition at the museum’s first temporary home. Economic depression hit after the Panic of 1873, and Johnston sold the painting in 1876, along with much of his collection. Because Johnston was a major patron of American artists, Turner’s Slave Ship arguably had its greatest direct influence during the short time Johnston owned it. (Scott suggests some instances of influence in the video linked above.) Alice Sturgis Hooper bought the painting at Johnston’s auction, and promptly put it on loan at the Museum of Fine Arts’ temporary home in Boston. (The MFA bought it from her nephew in 1899.) Thus Turner’s painting had prime exposure in three major metropolises within a few decades of its completion.  

Stormy Weather

A gestural painting with heavy whites and blues depicting rockets being launched to warn boats of shallow waters

J.M.W. Turner, “Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steam Boats of Shoal Water,” 1840, oil on canvas, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Photo: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.

Rockets and Blue Lights was Slave Ship’s pendant in the 1840 Royal Academy exhibition. In this coloristic maelstrom, one can hardly make out the endangered ship, which is being warned against shallow waters by blue flares as part of a newly established safety system designed to protect ships along Britain’s coast. 

a painting of a boat in a sea storm. The gestural white, blue, and brown brush strokes show high winds surrounding the boat in the center.

J.M.W. Turner, “Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth,” exhibited 1842, oil on canvas, Tate Britain, London, accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, N00530. Photo: © Tate, London, 2020.

Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth is one of the artist’s most remarkable paintings. Turner insisted that he tied himself to a mast to witness a ferocious storm, and that he later rendered this painting from that experience. 

In Modern Painters, Ruskin called Snow Storm:

one of the very grandest statements of sea-motion, mist, and light, that has ever been put on canvas, even by Turner. Of course it was not understood; his finest works never are….

A reviewer in the Athenaeum (May 14, 1842) had a very different opinion: 

This gentleman has, on former occasions, chosen to paint with cream, or chocolate, yolk of egg, or currant jelly, — here he uses his whole array of kitchen stuff. Where the steam-boat is — where the harbour begins, or where it ends — which are the signals, and which the author in the Ariel [the name of the ship]…are matters past our finding out. 

Turner, in fact, did employ wax, resins, and other unorthodox materials, which have posed problems for the conservation of his pictures. See the Kimbell’s lecture Painting is a Strange Business”: A Discussion of Turner’s Technique (2022) by Mark Aronson, deputy director and chief conservator, Yale Center for British Art.

Turner also used recently developed pigments, and his paintings were said to have changed more over time than those by his contemporaries. As far as I know, however, Turner’s paints were not drastically unstable and fugitive, such as those used by later artists like van Gogh (see my discussion in a Glasstire review).

A Final Four

Installation view of three paintings by JMW Turner

J.M.W. Turner, installation shot with “Glaucus and Scylla,” “Napoleon and the Rock Limpet,” and “Burial at Sea,” Kimbell Art Museum. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova

Detail of a woman in a painting

J.M.W. Turner, “Glaucus and Scylla”(detail of Glaucus), 1841, oil on panel, Kimbell Art Museum. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

The mythological painting Glaucus and Scylla is in the exhibition by dint of its “modern style.” By that rationale, just about any of Turner’s mature works would qualify for inclusion in Turner’s Modern World

It is a charming painting. In the detail above, Glaucus, who looks like a half-dissolved mermaid, is actually a merman. He hides behind a rock, where he is surreptitiously watching the nymph Scylla, with whom he fell in love. Glaucus asked the sorceress Circe (she is not depicted in this picture in human form, but as the child of the sun, she could be represented symbolically) for a love potion. But Circe drank it herself and was angered when Glaucus rejected her. 

detail of a figure of a Classical female surrounded by two putto.

J.M.W. Turner, “Glaucus and Scylla”(detail of Scylla, with the transformed Glaucus beneath her), 1841, oil on panel, Kimbell Art Museum. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

Scylla is the extremely pliable, flesh-colored Gumby-lady who twists her body as if she lacks a skeleton. She looks down and flees in horror from the monster beneath her, which has a horned human head (this is Glaucus, after being transformed by Circe into a monstrous creature).

These strange anatomies work for Turner. But the most important features are the bold color and the rich, translucent layers of paint, especially the ones that veil the monster below Scylla. This is a good time to point out that Turner was not an Impressionist. He utilized unorthodox materials, techniques, and flourishes, but within a traditional mode of painting. The Impressionists, on the other hand, worked all prima, taking Manet’s work as a point of departure. See my brief discussion of Manet and some of the Impressionists in a Glasstire review of Incomparable Impressionism in Houston.  

Glaucus and Scylla looks good, even in the company of two of Turner’s most distinguished and admired paintings. 

A painting of the figure of Napoleon in the landscape in front of the setting sun.

J.M.W. Turner, “War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet,” exhibited 1842, oil on canvas, Tate Britain, London, accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, N00529. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova

Turner depicts Napoleon on St. Helena, where he was exiled after his defeat at Waterloo in 1815, and where he died in 1821. Napoleon’s state funeral in 1840 must have inspired this painting.

The figure of Napoleon in the foreground with the bright reds and oranges of a setting sun in the background.

J.M.W. Turner, “War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet” (detail of center of painting) exhibited 1842, oil on canvas, Tate Britain, London, accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, N00529. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

Though it is now a very popular painting, it was savaged by the press when it was first exhibited. Critics thought Napoleon’s shadow made him look elongated, or as if he were on stilts. The Athenaeum’s (May 14, 1842) declared: 

In the midst of a canvas smeared with every shade of rose colour, crimson, vermillion, and orange, is set up a thing — man it assuredly is not. … [an] effigy of Napoleon rolled out to a colossal height. … 

Shackelford told me that the figure of Napoleon is particularly popular with museum-goers at the Kimbell: “People also get quite a kick out of sad Napoleon.” The rock limpet of the title (which perplexed the Athenaeum’s critic) is a mollusk. Napoleon is musing that it has more freedom than he does. Turner’s four-line text that accompanied the painting included the phrase “Amidst a sea of blood,” which makes it clear that the red sky refers to the human costs of war. 

A painting of a sea burial depicting two ships with a funeral pyre between. The painting is a gestural and painterly blue and gray that contrasts with the yellow flames of the pyre.

J.M.W. Turner, “Peace – Burial at Sea,” exhibited 1842, oil on canvas, Tate Britain, London, accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, N00528. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

Peace – Burial at Sea memorializes the painter David Wilkie, who died while returning from the Holy Land on June 1, 1841. He was buried at sea near Gibraltar that evening. It was paired with War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1842, which caused the critic for the Spectator (May 7, 1842) to declare: “He is as successful as ever in caricaturing himself, in two round blotches of rouge et noir.”

Detail of a seascape of a large ship in the center carrying a funeral pyre burning in the center. Flames and smoke contrast with the cool blue gestural sky and ocean.

J.M.W. Turner, “Peace – Burial at Sea” (detail of lower portion of picture), exhibited 1842, oil on canvas, Tate Britain, London, accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, N00528. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

David Blayney Brown, near the end of the The Making of ‘Turner’s Modern World’ lecture that is discussed above, believes that Peace – Burial at Sea and War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet were even more closely linked at their inception. Noting anomalies (he believes the coffin is being raised rather than lowered; burials at sea do not employ coffins), Brown argues that Burial at Sea must have initially depicted the collection of Napoleon’s remains for reburial in France. He thinks Turner changed the title and added the rocks of Gibraltar after Wilkie died. 

Detail of a grayish brown plume of steam rising above the landscape

J.M.W. Turner, “Steamer and Lightship; a study for ‘The Fighting Temeraire’” (detail of center), c.1838–9, oil on canvas, Tate Britain, accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, N05478. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

This was Turner’s first study for The Fighting Temeraire, which is discussed below. It is the kind of sketch that the artist abandoned and sometimes put to other uses (he utilized the back of this canvas as a writing surface). I particularly like the ghostly hint of a ship in the center of this detail.

Painting of a ship at sea at sunset.

J.M.W. Turner, “The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838,” 1839, oil on canvas, the National Gallery, London, Turner Bequest, 1856. Photo: National Gallery, London. (Not in Kimbell exhibition.)

The venerated heroine of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the Temeraire had been sold by the navy and was towed up the river Thames to a site in London where it was broken up for scrap. Turner showed this painting at the Royal Academy with lines he modified from Thomas Campbell’s lugubrious, jingoistic poem from 1797, Ye Mariners of England

The flag which braved the battle and the breeze, 

No longer owns her.

Instead of an aged, battle-scarred, mast-less ruin that was stripped to the hull, Turner has depicted a sleek, pristine-looking vessel that is seemingly ready for battle, though it has a ghostly pale cast. Simultaneously sentimental and nationalistic, it is an unsurpassed emblem of nostalgia for empire, as well as for the transformation from the age of sail to the age of steam. In several respects, it is literally money in the bank. 

Conclusion

It is always enlightening to see paintings in a new context. I have a new appreciation for the subtleties of the Metropolitan Museum’s Whalers (1851) after seeing it in Turner’s Modern World. This roughly painted, relatively colorless work is one of Turner’s paintings that I have seen the most times. But at the Met, it is displayed in close proximity to the spectacular Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute (1835), which overwhelms Whalers. The Venetian scene, which is not in the Kimbell exhibition, has an incredible treatment of light, especially the interplay of reflection and translucency in the waters of the canal. 

I inquired whether Shackelford had new insights or a new appreciation of some aspect of Turner’s work after living with Turner’s Modern World at the Kimbell for the past few months. He replied: 

Every time I go back into the exhibition, I see something I hadn’t seen before. It really is an exhibition that benefits from multiple visits, just because, on the first visit, it can be so visually stimulating that you’re almost dizzy in the last gallery. But if you didn’t see the over-scale horse-drawn carriage on the deck of the ship in Peace: Burial at Sea, you owe it to yourself to come back.

Detail of two ships performing a burial at sea. A fire burns bright yellow contrasting with the cool blues, grays, and whites of the seascape.

J.M.W. Turner, “Peace – Burial at Sea” (detail of ship), exhibited 1842, oil on canvas, Tate Britain, London, accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, N00528. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

The carriage (which is to the right of the mast) can be taken as additional evidence that the painting originally depicted the gathering of Napoleon’s remains, since a regal-sized carriage like this could have served to transport the coffin when the ship landed in France.

Turner’s Modern World is an exhibition that casts its nets wide. Rather than surveying the show’s extraordinary breadth, I have focused on my favorite works. Turner’s Modern World will broaden just about anyone’s view of Turner as an artist and as a social commentator. I inquired what kind of feedback the museum had received, and Shackelford noted that visitors came away with a keen appreciation of how Turner’s “style of painting and subject matter became increasingly ‘modern’ over his career as an artist.”

I asked Shackelford for a final comment on the exhibition. He noted the effect that Turner’s Modern World has had on artists:  

Among the people who have come to see Turner’s Modern World again and again are artists. It doesn’t matter what their own works look like, they are fascinated by what he was up to. In fact, I think that, as long as artists are still making paintings, Turner will continue to have an influence.

 

***

Ruben C. Cordova is an art historian and curator. He has previously reviewed Flesh and Blood: Italian Masterpieces from the Capodimonte Museum and Buddha, Shiva, Lotus, Dragon: The Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection at Asia Society at the Kimbell, and he wrote about curator Guillaume Kientz’s departure to head the Hispanic Society in New York.

4 comments

You may also like

4 comments

Roberto Gonzalez February 2, 2022 - 16:49

Great article Ruben! Turner has great painted surfaces. Love his expansive abstract theatricality. A lush painter.

Reply
Ruben C Cordova February 3, 2022 - 15:44

Thanks, Roberto. I’m glad you liked the article. I tried to capture the surfaces of his paint as best I could in my photographs. Unfortunately, the transparency of his paint is very hard to reproduce.

Reply
Larry Graeber February 10, 2022 - 10:42

Super article, thanks for illuminating Turner and the time as you did. Turner is one of my favorite painters.

Reply
Ruben C Cordova February 12, 2022 - 19:34

You are welcome, Larry. I’m glad you enjoyed he article. The exhibition addressed an unusually large number of social issues in a manner that is rarely done.

Reply

Leave a Comment

Funding generously provided by: