Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), master of luminous land- and seascapes, is making waves in New York this winter with a focused show at the Frick, “Modern and Ancient Ports: Passages Through Time.”
Two monumental oils from the museum’s West Gallery, “Harbor of Dieppe: Changement de Domicile” (exhibited 1825) and “Cologne, the Arrival of a Packet-Boat: Evening” (exhibited 1826), now hang in the Oval Room alongside a third, unfinished work, “The Harbor of Brest: The Quayside and Château” (1826-28), on loan from Tate Britain. The three port scenes comprise a series and are being shown together for the first time, along with some 30 oils, watercolors and prints.
Henry Clay Frick purchased the West Gallery’s mainstays “Dieppe” and “Cologne” more than a century ago. The painting of Brest’s harbor in Brittany was discovered by accident in 1943 in the basement of London’s National Gallery by then-director Kenneth Clark, who was looking for space for bomb shelters. More than 50 years later, Ian Warrell, a Turner specialist and one of the show’s curators, identified the subject. The canvas, part of the Turner Bequest to the nation in 1856, had never been exhibited or sold because it was unfinished. Here it serves to illuminate the painter’s process.
The three radiant harbor views are paradigms of Turner’s mid-career style, with color, light and atmospherics the central features. Widely heralded as Britain’s greatest painter, this son of a barber and wig maker from Covent Garden was obsessed with light. He has been dubbed the “painter of light” for his shining vistas, a feat he achieved by priming his canvases with white grounds and using newly invented pigments such as chrome yellow and chrome orange.
Turner’s sunny style was undoubtedly influenced by a trip to Italy in 1819. But critics faulted him for painting northern European ports in such light tones. The new hues, in fact, were deemed unnatural. His penchant for yellow prompted one reviewer to gibe he suffered from yellow fever.
The interest in ports derives in part from the border closures (sound familiar?) during the Napoleonic Wars, when Britons were banned from crossing the English Channel until the emperor’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Once the restrictions were lifted, Turner, an obsessive traveler, joined the throngs who streamed across the Channel to the Continent. He made two trips to Dieppe, in 1821 and 1824, sketchbook in hand (one is on display). He drew in situ and returned to his London studio to commence painting — from the sketches, from memory and from his wild imagination.
As the Frick’s director, Ian Wardropper, remarked at a preview, ports in the post-Napoleonic era became “symbols of trade, travel and commerce.” They represented freedom, and with the lifting of the ban, Turner was free to wander and continue the shift from naturalism to a more atmospheric and abstract style. Call it modern.
The Frick’s senior curator, Susan Grace Galassi, who had the idea for the exhibit, analyzed the two principle works, “Dieppe” and “Cologne.” Dieppe on the Normandy coast was a centuries-old fishing village. To an England that was undergoing industrialization, the picturesque port felt “very foreign and exotic, like landing on the moon,” she said. Viewers of the canvas have the sense of “gliding in on a boat with Turner. It’s a scene of massive sky, a painting about light with the city as a frame.”
Beautifully detailed architecture appears to the right, betraying Turner’s early apprenticeship as an architectural draftsman. The picture is monumental in scale, a size normally reserved for history paintings — but here the subject is “the quotidian,” Galassi said with reference to a buzzy open-air market and a couple unloading (loading?) household items from two boats.
Eyes are directed back to the dome and tower of the parish church St. Jacques, which “gives a spiritual quality to the light,” the curator said. The composition shows the influence of French landscape painter Claude Lorrain (1604/5-1682), who worked in Italy and used the device of a central distant sun.
The honey-toned “Cologne” is similarly monumental and similarly luminous, but this Rhine River harbor scene is set in the evening and refers back to 17th century Dutch marine painters, with a large boat blocking the deep space that is the hallmark of “Dieppe.” Once again there is a distant church with a tower, in this case Gross St. Martin. Stray figures on the shoreline appear to be laboring into the sunset; a tourist boat, meanwhile, sweeps by the medieval buildings and telegraphs the themes of leisure travel and passages through time.
The hazy “Harbor of Brest” was included as “an interesting example of work arrested at a certain stage,” Galassi said. It’s “in a molten state [showing] chaos before creation.”
Indeed, as Simon Schama relates in the BBC’s “Power of Art” about the artist he calls the “Cockney poet”: “One critic despaired that Turner delights in abstractions that go back to the first chaos of the world.”