Two of my favorite J.M.W. Turner paintings reside in museums not far from me: the harrowing “The Slave Ship” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the thrashing, splashing “Whalers” at The Met in New York. Both are masterworks by the 19th-century British artist, who began his career on a crest of acclaim only to come crashing down, relegated to solitary ignominy.
The disgrace was a direct result of Turner’s artistic magnificence. His unyielding depictions of roiling landscapes and maritime dramas revealed a radical stylist, whose fevered visions and intoxicated abstractions alternately pleased and repulsed.
Turner’s credo was “Never settle for the charming or the pretty,” says historian Simon Schama in his BBC series “The Power of Art,” a master class of lyrical, mind-stretching erudition that I cannot recommend more.
“This is what drives the very greatest art — contempt for ingratiation,” Schama notes in the episode about Rembrandt, a sentiment that clearly applies to Turner.
Early on, Turner could do little wrong, producing glittering, golden landscapes composed of, says Schama, “fairy dust.” The tableaus are electric storms of color — earth of blazing blood-reds, skies of bedazzling golds. Technically unconventional, his scribbly, smeary works were a bridge to Impressionism, a vital crossing between the Romantic and the modern.
He enjoyed early hits like 1812’s crowd-pulling “Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps,” which I recently saw at the Tate Britain. The picture is so epic, it’s almost literature.
But Turner felt the tug of the pure artist. He wanted more. Ambition hurled him forth into novel spheres of creativity and he evolved into a “painter of chaos, conflagration and apocalypse, wild and ambitious,” Schama says with a barely veiled grin.
This later period culminated with what Schama calls “the greatest British painting of the 19th century” — the dreadfully majestic “The Slave Ship.” Awash in horrors, the picture, based on a historical episode, depicts a ship in the distance and, closer to us, its human cargo — African slaves who have been thrown overboard — bobbing in the sea.
Critics hated the painting, controversial for its divisive subject and flamboyant technique, though Schama considers it Turner’s “greatest triumph in the sculptural carving of space.” It is a masterpiece.
“Whalers,” from 1845, was also not an immediate hit, though it’s one of the works I most seek out at The Met. Its violent subject matter, rendered with aggressive abstraction, proved slippery to viewers. At first blush — squint your eyes — it’s difficult to figure out what you’re looking at. I see a ship, but what’s that dark glob?
Allow novelist William Thackeray, Turner’s contemporary, to clear things up:
“That is not a smear of purple you see yonder, but a beautiful whale, whose tail has just slapped a half-dozen whale-boats into perdition; and as for what you fancied to be a few zig-zag lines spattered on the canvas at hap-hazard, look! They turn out to be a ship with all her sails.”
Yes! Of course. And this sudden clarity irradiates what is already a clear, uncontested tour de force, a painting that may have baffled for all its surpassing beauty.