For Britain’s greatest landscape and maritime painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), it was all light, all the time. Turner’s preoccupation with light and colour is highlighted in the Frick’s major exhibition of his port scenes from the 1820s and 1830s. Showboating (pun intended) the Frick’s Turners, the exhibition was organized by Susan Grace Galassi, Senior Curator, the Frick Collection; Ian Warrell, independent curator and Turner specialist; and Joanna Sheers Seidenstein, Anne L. Poulet Curatorial Fellow, the Frick Collection. Their essays are featured in the beautiful catalogue that accompanies this spectacular show.
Including many loans from other museums, the exhibition is built around the Frick’s two grand-scale harbour scenes of Dieppe, France and Cologne, Germany, which are restricted from travel. They are usually installed across from each other in the long West Gallery, and are easily overlooked there, almost lost among many other important works.
Painted by Turner in the mid-1820s and displayed together here in the small Oval Room where the show begins, the Frick’s harbours are overwhelming. Exploring European ports, which opened up to British tourists after almost two decades of travel bans during the Napoleonic Wars, they flank a related unfinished but equally imposing harbour scene of Brest, Brittany, on loan from the Tate in London.
Appearing side by side for the first time, the paintings in this trio all feature figures dwarfed by a seascape that covers more than half of each canvas. Bodies of water reach the bottom of each work, while the sun and sky extend to the top border.
In the Frick’s Harbor of Dieppe: Changement de Domicile (exhibited 1825 but later dated 1826), Turner depicts the daily life of people going about their ordinary tasks against a grand background. Oblivious to a gushing sewage pipe in the foreground, a girl dangles her feet in contaminated water, as a couple hauls household items from a boat, amid some 200 figures jostling each other as they work or observe. The radiant sun and luminous sky are mirrored on the water. Influenced by Claude Lorrain, the composition features two arms of the city that lead to a vanishing horizon. The dome and tower of the Church of St. Jacques anchor the piece, as quotidian detail is imbued with a sense of spirituality.
In the Frick’s companion piece Cologne, the Arrival of a Packet-Boat: Evening (1826), the sea and sky take up as much of the canvas and extend as far. Medieval landmarks of the city on the Rhine are juxtaposed with ordinary effects like fishing gear and lumber. Workers on the shore contrast with frivolous female tourists in an approaching ferry boat —all against the beauty of a natural background saturated with light. Although set in the evening, the scene is infused with pink, violet, and golden tones. Here the shore leading to the horizon features the tower and spire of the Church of Gross St. Martin, the tallest point in the painting, almost pricking the sky. The steeple leads the eye upward, as the transcendent is set against the mundane.
These two Frick ports appear with the Tate’s unfinished Harbor of Brest: The Quayside and Chateau (ca. 1826-28), which is considered to be in the same series of northern European ports. Similar to the Frick’s ports in palette, scale, grandeur, and composition, Brest displays light reflected on water, as the river, lined with buildings, leads the eye to the horizon. Offering insight into Turner’s methods, the painting reveals blended washes of blue, orange, yellow, and red oil that have been diluted by turpentine and applied by brush over an absorbent white ground.
Also in the Oval Room, across from the trio depicting Turner’s contemporary ports, are the other oil paintings in the show. While similar in composition to the modern ports, these works, which are slightly smaller, depict classical stories, showcasing Turner’s imagination. Perhaps the most impressive of these paintings is Regulus (exhibited 1828), where Turner plays with the viewer. Depicting Marcus Atilius Regulus, who was forced to stare at the sun until he could no longer see, the painting is thought to be Turner’s response to criticism that his works were blinding. Here the sun is reflected in the water, as in the modern ports, but the light is so glaring that it hurts (in a good way).
Complementing the Oval Room display of Turner’s oil paintings, the adjacent East Gallery includes some two dozen smaller watercolours of different types of ports. Many of these paintings were converted to black-and-white prints for British publications. Not only did these prints provide Turner with a steady income, they increased his fame. Some accompany their watercolour originals here.
Many of the watercolours are similar in composition to the oils and, like the oils, emphasize water, sky, light, and atmosphere. Without the signs of manufacturing that would have dominated ports at the time, however, the oils freeze an idealized pre-industrial world, while many of the watercolours incorporate features of industrialization. For example, Dover Castle from the Sea (1822) for Marine Views juxtaposes fishing boats with a steamboat spewing smoke. Another watercolour Shields, on the River Tyne, for the print series The Rivers of England (1823), includes representations of industrialization: reflected in the water, the bright full moon allows workers to shovel coal onto boats.
Since Turner painted in oil and in watercolour during the same period, it is not surprising that he exchanged and alternated techniques, achieving translucency in his oils and vibrancy in his watercolours. Shields, for example, almost anticipates Starry Night.
In both oils and watercolours, Turner’s use of intense golden light borders on the abstract and impressionistic. Yellow is the new black.
Turner’s Modern and Ancient Ports was at the Frick Museum, New York from 23rd February to 14th May 2017.