Turner and the drama of history.
by Simon Schama
From the New Yoker
Poor old Turner: one minute the critics were singing his praises, the next they were berating him for being senile or infantile, or both. No great painter suffered as much from excesses of adulation and execration, sometimes for the same painting. "Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and DyingTyphon Coming On" had, on its appearance at the Royal Academy, in 1840, been mocked by the reviewers as "the contents of a spittoon," a "gross outrage to nature," and so on. The critic of the Times thought the seven picturesincluding "Slavers"that Turner sent to the Royal Academy that year were such "detestable absurdities" that "it is surprising the [selection] committee have suffered their walls to be disgraced with the dotage of his experiments." John Ruskin, who had been given "Slavers" by his father and had appointed himself Turner's paladin, not only went overboard in praise of his hero but drowned in the ocean of his own hyperbole. In the first edition of "Modern Painters" (1843), Ruskin, then all of twenty-four, sternly informed the hacks that "their duty is not to pronounce opinions upon the work of a man who has walked with nature threescore years; but to impress upon the public the respect with which they [the works] are to be received."
The reasons for both the sanctification and the denunciation were more or less the same: Turner's preference for poetic atmospherics over narrative clarity, his infatuation with the operation of light rather than with the objects it illuminated. His love affair with gauzy obscurity, his resistance to customary definitions of contour and line, his shameless rejoicing in the mucky density of oils or in the wayward leaks and bleeds of watercolorsthese were condemned as reprehensible self-indulgence. Sir George Beaumont, collector, patron, and, as he supposed, arbiter of British taste, complained noisily of Turner's "vicious practice" and dismissed his handling of the paint surface as "comparatively, blots." The caustic essayist William Hazlitt was especially troubled by Turner's relish of visual ambiguity: the sharp line melting into the swimming ether. Contrary to Ruskin, Hazlitt thought it was unseemly for Turner to fancy himself playing God, reprising the primordial flux of Creation. Someone, Hazlitt commented, had said that his landscapes "were pictures of nothing and very like."
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J. M. W. Turner's whose work will be on display at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., from October 1st through January 6th.
To see a slide show of Turner's work click here.