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The Heights of the Sublime


The Frist in Nashville hosts a visiting delegation of Turner masterpieces.

J.M.W. Turner, Lausanne: Sunset, 1841–42

J.M.W. Turner, Lausanne: Sunset, 1841–42, graphite and watercolor on paper, 9 7/8 x 14 3/8 in. Credit: Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856. Photo © Tate, 2019

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The Frist Art Museum in Nashville, Tenn., is offering visitors a special opportunity to see a career-spanning selection of works by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), considered one of the greatest British artists in history, if not the greatest. A key figure in the Romantic movement and a master of landscape and light, Turner created paintings whose bold effects seem to prefigure aspects of modern art. “J.M.W. Turner: Quest for the Sublime,” on view through May 31 at the Frist’s Ingram Gallery, presents around 75 dating from the 1790s through the late 1840s, ranging from paintings of ancient history to views of Venice and the Swiss Alps to the atmospheric seascape and landscape canvases for which the artist is best known. All this is made possible by Tate Britain, the repository of the Turner Bequest—the contents of the artist’s studio which he left to the nation at his death. The Frist exhibition has been organized in cooperation with Tate and curated by David Blayney Brown, senior curator of 19th-century art at Tate Britain, and it will not be seen anywhere else in the United States.

The exhibition is thematically laid out, starting with a section on his early landscape paintings, done while he was studying at the schools of the Royal Academy (at 24, in 1802, he became the youngest Academician to date). During this time of his career, Turner formed the lifelong habit of traveling to the European continent each summer in search of subject matter for paintings. The next section is dedicated to Turner’s mountain paintings from Switzerland, made during the period of peace following the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Other sections illuminate Turner’s working methods by placing paintings alongside sketches, preparatory drawings, and watercolors in various stages of completion. The exhibition concludes with a section on Turner’s late sea paintings, in which he allowed the effects of light and air virtually to take over his compositions, yielding his most striking and distinctive works.

The young Turner was already an innovator in his emphasis on the medium of watercolor, which was seen as secondary to oil painting. Turner’s “exhibition watercolors” were painted on an unusually large scale and took on large subjects such as historical scenes, in order to compete with oil on its own turf. He also used unorthodox techniques such as scratching the paper or mopping the wash to create textured effects more typical of oil on canvas. Turner was a trendsetter in this regard, raising the curtain on a period of expansion in the ambitions of watercolor. Still, he painted plenty in oils, as well. The Deluge (1805) is an astonishing work that depicts Noah’s Flood from the Bible with dramatic clouds, rain, and a fiery red glow of sun in the far distance. Turner draws inspiration not just from the Bible but from the pictures by Titian, Veronese, and Poussin that he had seen in the Louvre during his first trip to the Continent in the summer of 1802. And as Brown points out in an essay, the presence of a black man in the foreground, heroically trying to save a drowning girl, could be an anti-slavery message embedded in the painting, which may have been intended for an abolitionist patron.

When Turner finally made it to Italy in 1819, the special quality of light he saw there stayed with him ever after and revolutionized his painting. That Italian light suffuses Venice, the Bridge of Sighs (exhibited 1840), in which the stone of the Bridge and of the Piazza San Marco are rendered almost translucent and their reflections cause them to merge with the water of the canal. The brighter, harder light of Southern Italy also enthralled Turner. In Tivoli: Tobias and the Angel (circa 1835), the Biblical story seems to become an afterthought, the tiny figures in the foreground insignificant in comparison with the hills outside Rome, the glittering waters, and the trees seen against a golden glow in the sky.


Turner’s work from the mid-1830s on, usually referred to as his “late work,” is in many ways his greatest, but it has also caused the greatest number of problems for critics, who have grappled with how to categorize paintings that often seem to have no discernible subject matter and put to rout the classic criteria for judging a painting. In A River Seen from a Hill (circa 1840–45), the bridge is almost dematerialized by the light and haze, far more so than the bridge in Venice, and even the river is insubstantial. Sea and Sky, English Coast (?) (1832) is almost abstract in its avoidance of any landscape or figure, really just a tone poem in blue and white. And in Snow-Storm: Steam-Boat Off a Harbor’s Mouth (exhibited 1842), the steam-boat is all but eclipsed by the swirling water and clouds.
Some critics at the time called Turner a “madman” or chided him for painting “pictures of nothing.” One called the late paintings “eccentricities of a great genius in which he of late years indulged, and which rendered it necessary that he should attach rings to his pictures…in order to show which side of the picture should be hung uppermost.” Later writers, especially in the 20th century, hailed the late Turner as a precursor of the avant-garde, likening his paintings to Impressionism or even Abstract Expressionism. But that misses the point. Turner’s works were indeed astonishing, absolutely individual, and visually challenging. However, he was a man of his time, and his progression toward ever-more dematerialized, seemingly abstract depictions was in keeping with the Romantic search for the Sublime in nature, the source of a luminous and numinous power. Paradoxically, as Brown points out in an essay, Turner also appreciated the atmospheric effects brought about by steam engines and pollution. Far from condemning the “dark Satanic Mills” like his older countryman William Blake, Turner embraced the never-before-seen glow over England, seeing the Sublime even in the climate-damaging byproducts of the Industrial Revolution.


By John Dorfman

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: March 2020

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