The Peabody Essex Museum sets us sail for summer with its newest show, Turner & the Sea. This is a first-ever look at the British master’s half-century long attraction to ocean.
The sea has always had an allure for many, from the sailors looking for adventure to those seeking solace, from poets to painters. But there is one artist, says curator Daniel Finamore of the Peabody Essex Museum, who captured it like no other. That is famed British painter J. M. W. Turner.
“He looked at the sea as the most elemental expression of nature, the unfettered kind of activity of the light, the reflections, the energy. No human modification. All of these things that are just expressions of nature at its most sublime, its most dangerous, its most beautiful,” Finamore said.
The sea is a subject Turner visited throughout his career, from the late 1700s to the mid 1800s. It was his escape—chiefly from the landscape paintings which had given him renowned fame.
“Turner, as a very experimental artist, usually reserved experimental work for seascape. He tackled seascapes in ways that had never been worked on before. So this is a show that focuses on how he treated the sea, in a number of different respects. But, primarily as experimental avant garde painter,” Finamore explained.
Turner was an exception. In this exhibit, Turner’s peers also appear with their majestic maritime views. But for Turner, this was his time to explore, even explode on the canvas.
“It’s hard for us to appreciate just how avant garde a lot of that was, how crazy people saw that, how indefinable. They use the word ‘indistinct’ over and over again. Now that we’ve been through the 20th century and all of these experimental movements in painting, it’s easy to look back and see that Turner was experimenting with a lot of his ideas at a time when other values were embraced in painting,” Finamore said.
Testing the waters was a luxury Turner could afford himself as one of the most celebrated painters of his time, which came with financial freedom. Although just the son of a barber growing up in Convent Garden, Finamore tells me Turner stood out as an exceptional painter.
“Exhibiting in the royal academy in his teens is highly unusual. Being rich by his early twenties and having the ability to pursue his interests and nothing else at that time, so early on in life had to have a huge impact on him. But he always knew how to sell his paintings,” he said.
To maximize his distribution and his bank account, Turner worked in watercolors, easily scooped up by ravenous collectors in Europe and America. But that popularity also brought him constant competition.
“He was an artist’s artist. So when he created something, other artists paid attention to it and they start emulating, which on one hand is very flattering and on another hand is very threatening, because then you need to stay one step ahead. He was always successful at that,” Finamore explained.
More than 100 Turner works comprise the show. As a curator, Finamore says he is especially struck by the painter’s pallet.
“There’s nothing like Turner’s colors, which are so breathtaking. And half of them were highly controversial in their day as well, but they’re effective. He loved to experiment, especially with yellows….when you walked into the Royal Academy Exhibition, where paintings were hung cheap— 3, 4, 5 paintings high—he wanted to make sure his would stand out. It would glow. He was known as the ‘painter of light’.”
As a fitting end to the show in Salem, Massachusetts, the exhibition concludes with Turner’s splash in America, with artists like Whistler and many others who followed his lead, both literally and metaphorically. “I think in many cases they were intentionally reflecting upon his approaches and emulating him,” Finamore said. “Borrowing some of his technique, [some actual] brushwork and physical technique. And other aspects they were taking from was the overall effect of his paintings.”
Turner and the Sea runs at the PEM through the summer. Be sure to see for yourself what wowed viewers nearly two centuries ago and continues to reveal.