Savage Grandeur


National Gallery Puts on Unprecedented Turner Show

Fans of the great British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) have a treat of epic proportions waiting for them at the National Gallery of Art. With no less than 12 exhibition rooms in use, the National Gallery has staged the most comprehensive Turner show ever presented in the United States.

Raging seas, dizzying mountain passes and churning skies envelope the viewer with danger, majestic grandeur and the destructive power of nature. These giant canvases would seem to be right at home in the type of regal castles that Turner often depicted. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine another venue for them—outside of another world-class museum, of course.

Contrary to the epic character of his landscapes, Turner—the leading British artist of his era—came from a modest background. The son of a London barber, his work spans six decades and has come to be regarded as unprecedented landscape art. In fact, Turner, a member of the Royal Academy of Arts at the young age of 26, elevated landscape painting to that of historical art.

Many of his landscape themes incorporated scenes from history—especially famous British battles—as well as the Bible, mythology and classical literature. But whether it was a painting of Venice’s waters, a Roman church, or the burning of the British House of Parliament, the omnipresence of nature—whether a vortex of clouds or an iridescent sun—could always be found in Turner’s canvases.

In fact, during Turner’s time, people held a certain fascination, awe, transcendence and even terror in the face of uncontrollable nature. The artistic mode that evolved to express this cultural phenomenon was known as the Sublime, and it became the dominating aesthetic of Turner’s work. The Sublime can be seen in Turner’s suns, seas, mountain cliffs and waterfalls, as well as in cataclysmic events such as storms, avalanches, fires and war. For example, in one of his most ambitious early paintings, “Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps,” Turner combines history with the Sublime to portray Hannibal’s epic struggle with nature and politics.

Sea-loving viewers in particular will not be disappointed with this exhibition. The ocean, one of nature’s most volatile actors, was a favorite theme in Turner’s works. In “Fishermen at Sea,” a slivery moon breaking through dark clouds illuminates fishermen being tossed about by turbulent waves. In the more dramatic pieces, “The Shipwreck,” “Survivors at Sea,” “Disaster at Sea” and “Whalers,” the viewer is compelled to wonder if Turner’s subjects will survive the sea’s fury? But from Turner’s vantage point, nature clearly has the upper hand—and it is this vantage point that makes his portrayals so awe-inspiring.

For Turner, humans were often doll-like figures—easily broken or tossed about—while treacherous mountain passes were seen from a ground-level perspective, where it is difficult to believe that any creature, let alone a mere mortal, could navigate them. Indeed, a journey through the Colorado Rockies pales in comparison to what Turner had in store for his mythic adventurers.

Another compelling aspect of Turner’s style is his extraordinary use of light. Known as the “painter of light,” Turner’s ability to illuminate his landscapes is mesmerizing, as suns and moons break through forbidding banks of clouds. In “The Angel Standing in the Sun,” viewers marvel not at the mythic angel, but at how Turner used shimmering light to surround and float the subject in a swirl of earthy yellows, oranges and reds.

Turner’s use of light—sometimes subtle and misty, other times glowing and glorious—also helped to set the tone of his landscapes, dictating whether Mother Nature would be benevolent or angry to his subjects. In some of his works, nature can hardly be referred to as “motherly,” as there is no sense of a protective, loving relationship with the tiny humans on Turner’s canvases. These paintings are masculine, heroic, competitive and brutal.

But there are also many calmer, more soothing works, such as “Ivy Bridge” and “Willows Beside a Stream,” which have an impressionistic feel to them. “The Lake, Petworth House, Sunset” is another such work that was done as a study for one of Turner’s patrons, Lord Egremont. It is soft, dreamy and a welcome departure from overpowering works such as “The Field of Waterloo,” “Britain at War,” “The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire” and “Tenth Plague of Egypt.”

A popular Turner tale goes that in order to really experience the emotional drama whipped up by a storm at sea, the painter had to strap himself to the mast of a ship. But in his later decades, Turner’s interest in man’s struggle with nature had waned as he turned more toward mystical subjects.

A superb example of that shift in consciousness is “Death on a Pale Horse.” Piercing a wall of clouds and fire, a black steed bears a skeletal corpse. Perhaps after years of depicting the simultaneously beautiful yet frightening grandeur of Mother Nature, Turner focused an unsentimental eye on man’s inevitable mortality, surrounding his apocalyptic horseman with the clouds of fury and light for which he was so renowned.

J.M.W. Turner through Jan. 6 National Gallery of Art on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue, NW. For more information, please call (202) 737-4215 or visit

About the Author

Rachel Ray is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.