Luminous Worlds: British Works on Paper, 1760-1900′ at the Legion of Honor

Luminous Worlds: British Works on Paper, 1760-1900” at the Legion of Honor is more than an addendum to the de Young‘s major exhibition, “J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free.” By culling relevant works from the holdings of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts and private S.F. collections, the show shines a spotlight on not only the drawings, watercolors and oil sketches of Turner but also on those of contemporaries like William Blake, John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough.

Their range of strategies, subjects, techniques and approaches to light, rendered in so many evocative, elusive ways, touch on the wealth of art making in this period. While many are now familiar with the works of Turner due to the current exhibit at the de Young, the show introduces viewers to a whole range of late 18th to 19th century British watercolor artists. For those who those who think that 19th century British art was limited to genre and kitsch, the works on view will come as a revelation.

“Luminous Worlds” gathers about 40 works, ranging widely in subject matter and technique, that reveal the richness and versatility of British artistic production over the course of a century. The exhibition reflects the 18th-century vogue for portraiture and caricature; the rise of landscape painting, especially in watercolors; the Romantic engagement with themes from mythology and literature; and 19th-century Orientalism. Highlights include Gainsborough’s “Upland Landscape with Figures, Riders, and Cattle” (ca. 1780–1790), Sir Thomas Lawrence’s “Portrait of Mrs. Sarah Siddons” (ca. 1790), Blake’s “The Complaint of Job” (ca. 1786), and Turner’s “View of Kenilworth Castle (ca. 1830).”

In the early 1700s watercolor painting was seen as an amateur pastime unworthy of true painters, but toward the end of the century British artists started to make watercolors designed to compete directly with oil paintings. They were bigger, with strong colors and dramatic compositions. The “exhibition watercolor” attracted new audiences of collectors and produced some of the most technically complex and powerful works in the medium.

Turner was not the only artist who rebelled against highly finished and sharply delineated figurative work. John Constable also quietly rebelled against the artistic culture that taught artists to use their imagination to compose their pictures rather than nature itself. He told a friend, “When I sit down to make a sketch from nature, the first thing I try to do is to forget that I have ever seen a picture”.

Although Constable produced paintings throughout his life for the “finished” picture market of patrons and R.A. exhibitions, constant refreshment in the form of on-the-spot studies was essential to his working method. He was never satisfied with following a formula. “The world is wide”, he wrote, “no two days are alike, nor even two hours; neither were there ever two leaves of a tree alike since the creation of all the world; and the genuine productions of art, like those of nature, are all distinct from each other.”

Constable’s watercolors were also remarkably free for their time: the almost mystical “Stonehenge, 1835, ” with its double rainbow, is often considered to be one of the greatest watercolors ever painted. When he exhibited it in 1836, Constable appended a text to the title: “The mysterious monument of Stonehenge, standing remote on a bare and boundless heath, as much unconnected with the events of past ages as it is with the uses of the present, carries you back beyond all historical records into the obscurity of a totally unknown period.”

Constable once wrote, “My limited and abstracted art is to be found under every hedge, and in every lane, and therefore nobody thinks it worth picking up”.He could never have imagined how influential his honest techniques would turn out to be. Constable’s art inspired not only contemporaries like Géricault and Delacroix, but the Barbizon School, and the French impressionists of the late nineteenth century.

Thomas Gainsborough was one of the most popular artists of the 18th Century, most famous today for “The Blue Boy.” Though much of Gainsborough’s income came from painting portraits, his real passion was for landscapes. The art historian Michael Rosenthal describedGainsborough as “one of the most technically proficient and, at the same time, most experimental artists of his time”. He was noted for the speed with which he applied paint, and he worked more from observations of nature (and of human nature) than from application of formal academic rules. The poetic sensibility of his paintings caused Constable to say, “On looking at them, we find tears in our eyes and know not what brings them.”

William Blake (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827) was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. Largely unrecognized during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. His prophetic poetry has been said to form “what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language.” Nevertheless, the works on view are exquisite examples of engraving combined with hand colored prints.

Samuel Palmer is another unjustly unknown artists, arguable one of the most creative artists of the 19th century. Palmer became an artist at a young age and was strongly influenced throughout his career by the work of his friend and mentor William Blake. Palmer’s early work was partly shaped by his interest in the ‘primitive’ artists of the fifteenth and sixteenth century. For a time, he lived in the Kent village of Shoreham, whose surrounding countryside became his ‘Valley of Vision’. After this he married and spent time in Italy; following his return to London he worked in watercolor and took up etching. In his later years, Palmer suffered a series of personal hardships – including the death of his son – and ended his life living as a recluse.

Legion of Honor Through November 2015.



Did Turner write this Music?

There are a wide selection of possibilities for the authorship of this piece [Tabley No. 2 (1808, C1V page 52a)] and I would love for it to have been composed by JMW Turner himself. At the time it was written, in 1808, Turner had been studying the flute for perhaps one year. There is in fact little information documenting his musical interests but as a flute teacher myself, I have estimated that a student of 12-18 months could play a piece of this standard.

(..) there are two possibilities: this music was either written by JMW Turner or his teacher. The handwriting above each note is consistent with Turner’s handwriting. These notes also appear to be written by a right handed person which again correlates with Turner’s right-handedness. But, there is something about how deftly written the notes are, and the complicated mordent at the start of the first image which makes me think this may have been written by his teacher.



Where to See the Work of Mr. Turner Around America

The celebrated English artist J. M. W. Turner painted not only with oils and watercolors but, almost magically, with light.

Nowhere is that more easily apparent – and the contrast of his use of light and darkness more dramatic — than from a seat on the cushioned bench at the south end of the European galleries of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Off to the left is East Cowes Castle, The Seat of J. Nash Esq.; The Regatta Beating to Windward, a large pale, light canvas of creamy, parallel sails leaning away from the wind. Far across the galleries, against the north wall, is the even larger canvas, the dark, foreboding The Fifth Plague of Egypt, where only a flash of lightning illuminates the underside of roiling clouds and settles on one side of a pyramid. At four feet by six feet, this was the first of Turner’s large canvasses. It was first displayed in 1800 at the Royal Academy a year after the young artist was elected an Associate to the Royal Academy at the age of 24.

The historical landscape was well received, and no one seemed to mind that perhaps Turner got his biblical plagues (or titles) mixed up, that what he portrayed was actually the seventh plague described in the book of Exodus.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 – 1851) is generally considered to be England’s greatest painter. Prolific and eccentric, his talent blossomed early – at first in drawings, prints and watercolors and later with oils – turbulent seascapes, dramatic landscapes. He was considered a superb colorist. Once when a critic dismissed one of his paintings as looking like a salad, he supposedly commented sarcastically,  “Nice cool green, that lettuce, isn’t it? And the beetroot pretty red – not quite strong enough; and the mixture, delicate tint of yellow that.  Add some mustard and you have one of my pictures.”

In his later years, the period covered by the newly released (and critically praised) movie Mr. Turner, as broad brushes of color and imagination slashed across his canvases, details grew less distinct – leading many to consider him the first of the Impressionists.  Even for those who don’t see the movie, Turner’s works are obviously worth seeking out.

The museums with the two largest collections of Turner’s work are not in Manhattan or Boston, as might be expected, but at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut.

Which is not to say that all works in these large collections are currently on display. At Indianapolis, for instance, Martin Krause, curator of prints and drawings, says Turner’s delicate watercolors (the museum has 38 watercolors and 3,000 engravings and etchings of Turner’s in its collection) are being “given a rest” from the potential damage from of both natural and artificial light. The IMA’s rule of thumb for watercolors and drawings is “twice as long [in storage] at they’re up,” says Krause. Museum administrators say they will probably not be back on public view for several years.

The timing is also not good at Yale, where architect Louis I. Kahn’s building housing the Center (which opened to the public in 1977) is closed for conservation renovations until February 2016. In the meantime, one of Yale’s Turners, the Scottish landscape Staffa, Fingal’s Cave, which does a star turn in one of the scenes in the film, is being moved across the street to the Yale University Art Gallery. It will be part of the exhibit “The Critique of Reason: Romantic Art, 1760-1860,” at the gallery from March 6 to July 26, 2015.

However, other museums across the country also have Turners on view. More than a half-dozen museums along the East Coast have Turners currently on view, including five oil paintings at both the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C., and Manhattan’s Frick Collection, where the paintings are displayed in the same rooms of the Fifth Avenue mansion in which collector Henry Clay Frick originally enjoyed them.

A sampling of other museums:

·      In Ohio, the Cincinnati Museum of Art currently has on display the water color Lyme Regis, Dorsetshire, England but only through February 1, because of light issues (see Indianapolis, above).

·      The Taft Museum, in downtown Cincinnati, has two Turner oil canvases, the pastoral landscape The Trout Stream and Europa and the Bull, which, with its broad washes of color and, gauzy details is probably unfinished, say experts. This canvas is currently on loan to the Tate Britain in London for the exhibit that will be coming to California later this year (see below). In exchange, the Tate has sent Turner’s large oil, The Golden Bough, to the Taft for display until early August 2015.

·      The Art Institute of Chicago has two Turner oils on view – the large dramatic seascape, Fishing Boats With Hucksters Bargaining for Fish, and Valle d’Aosta: Snowstorm, Avalanche and Thunderstorm, painted after Turner’s first, brief excursion onto Italian soil in 1802.

·      In the Southwest, visitors to the Dallas Art Museum can see Turner’s Bonneville, Savoy, — a gentle, pastoral scene in the foreground set against towering, sharp-peaked Alpine foothills.

But by far the largest exhibit of Turner works on display in the U.S. as Mr. Turner makes its way across the country will be in Los Angeles. The exhibit “J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free” has been organized by the Tate Britain in London, in association with the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. The exhibit, which focuses on what curators call the “especially creative and inventive” final 15 years of Turner’s life, opened in September 2014, at the Tate, which, naturally, has the world’s largest collection of Turner works. It moves to the U.S. and the Getty Center from February 24 to May 24, 2015, and up the coast to the de Young Museum in San Francisco from June 20 to September 20, 2015.

This exhibit consists of more than 60 key oil paintings and watercolors (including several on loan from American museums). Of course, for those who cannot wait until February 24, Turner’s narrative history painting Van Tromp Going About to Please His Masters, is currently on view at the Getty Center and The Grand Canal: Scene—A Street in Venice is at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, near Pasadena.

by Nancy Kriplen

Source: SmithsonianMag

There’s not a trace of shaving foam in sight in the early Turners on show at Salisbury Museum

‘Stonehenge’, c.1827, by J.M.W. Turner
‘Stonehenge’, c.1827, by J.M.W. Turner
Turner’s Wessex — Architecture and Ambition

Salisbury Museum, until 27 September


National Gallery, until 6 September

It has often been related how, towards the end of his long life, a critical barb got under J.M.W. Turner’s skin. ‘Soapsuds and whitewash!’ Turner apparently snorted, repeatedly, to himself. However, until now no one has traced the perpetrator of this memorably tart comment.

Now we know. It was the scandalous, super-rich patron and novelist William Beckford, who made it in 1831 while taking a visitor on a tour of his collection. They paused in front of a watercolour of Fonthill Abbey, Beckford’s erstwhile house — and folly — that Turner had painted some three decades earlier. The guest remarked that the painter did not paint like that these days. ‘Oh!’, exclaimed Beckford. ‘Gracious God! No! He paints now as if his brains and imagination were mixed upon his palette with soapsuds and lather.’

This is just one of the revelations in Turner’s Wessex — Architecture and Ambition, a delightful exhibition at the Salisbury Museum, whose catalogue, by the curator, Ian Warrell, contains much fresh scholarship. Most of the exhibits come from Turner’s early years — when he was working in an idiom of sharp-focused topographical accuracy that nobody could ever compare to shaving foam. At the heart of the show are two groups of paintings that the artist produced while still in his twenties for a pair of patrons with houses not far from Salisbury: Beckford at Fonthill and Richard Colt Hoare of Stourhead.

The two watercolour sets Turner painted for Hoare — of Salisbury Cathedral and city — are enjoyable partly because of their architectural precision. When you step outside the museum, you can see several of the subjects of the pictures — and note how some, such as ‘Gateway to the Close’ (1796), have changed little in more than 200 years.

Warrell suggests that one of the reasons why Hoare, a keen antiquarian, had commissioned the pictures was that the cathedral had already been drastically altered from its medieval appearance by the architect James Wyatt. Even more sweeping changes were mooted — supported by the reckless, vulgar and visionary Beckford and opposed by the more conservative Hoare.

In these pictures, you can see the youthful Turner balancing this careful accuracy with something quite different: a sense of the sublime. When painting the ‘Chapter-House’ (1801), for example, he shrank the children playing near the central pillar to a Lilliputian scale, thus making the light-filled space even more vast and numinous than it actually is.

Similarly, he presented the 300-foot tower of Fonthill — a house like a dream from Gothic fiction — from a distance, looming over wooded landscape. The lack of close-up studies of the building was perhaps a tactful evasion of the fact that the structure collapsed intermittently even as it was being built.

Fonthill was a metaphor in masonry and mortar for Beckford’s soaring imagination and, in literal fact, lack of firm foundations. This incomparably impractical structure fell down finally and catastrophically in 1825 — shortly after Beckford had succeeded in selling it, but not before he had spent much of one of the largest fortunes in Europe on the project.

Turner’s own imagination had left topography far behind by the end of his career. The unfinished, ‘Arrival of Louis-Philippe’ (c. 1844–5), a highlight of the exhibition, is exactly the kind of picture Beckford had in mind when he made his rude observation, although really it is sun, sea and moist air it evokes rather than washing-up.

To Turner’s great opposite, equal and fellow painter of Salisbury John Constable, landscapes had a soundtrack. We know from a famous letter that Constable wrote to his friend Archdeacon Fisher that it was not only riverside sights such as slimy posts and rotten planks that he loved but also ‘the sound of water escaping from mill dams’.

Can one take that insight a stage further and exhibit paintings with associated noises? This is a question boldly posed by Soundscapes at the National Gallery, which presents six pictures from the collection with musical and other aural accompaniment.

The short answer turns out to be ‘no’. It is a qualified negative, however. The three musical scores are simply distracting. The others are more thought-provoking. Susan Philipsz is the exponent of ‘sound art’ who has come closest to convincing me there is such a thing. Her ‘Air on a Broken String’ is quite an interesting experience in which violin notes emerge from three speakers, mingling in space. It’s just that I’d rather not hear it in front of Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’. But best are the natural sounds such as birdsong that the wildlife recording specialist Chris Watson supplies as an adjunct to the Finnish painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s picture of ‘Lake Keitele’ (1905). Still, the lesson seems to be that the soundtracks to paintings are best left inside the artist’s head.

by Martin Gayford

Source: The Spectator