By Kevin Wolf (@kevinwolf666)
The late schlock-master Thomas Kinkade liked to call himself "Painter of Light"—and was brazen enough to trademark the phrase. But any painter whose pictures are worth looking at is painting light, as well as shadow. The masters Vermeer, Caravaggio, and Rembrandt all come to mind; also Georgia O'Keefe, in a more modern vein, and her wonderfully sunbaked images.
An extensive exhibit at the PEM demonstrates what happened when another master, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), turned to seascapes. (In fact, according to the National Gallery in England, Turner was known in his day as "the painter of light"—take that, Kinkade!) While the show, Turner & The Sea, is an informative, almost exhaustive, history of marine painting during Turner's life, what one comes away with is what Turner managed to create with paint and light: atmosphere.
"Sheerness as Seen from the Nore," a relatively early canvas (c. 1808) already has what to my mind is a Turner trademark: the sun hugging the horizon, veiled in clouds or fog, burning red as though trying to escape. (The reproduction in the exhibition catalog does not do this sun justice.) Whether in calm or stormy seas, close to shore or far off, the ships and scenes in Turner's marine paintings abound in beautiful paint effects depicting sky, sunlight, rain, foam, and fog. In sea battle scenes he adds smoke.
Not to slight the numerous watercolors, about which more later, but the centerpiece of the exhibit (literally, too, as the galleries are arranged) is the face-off between two mammoth canvases depicting sea battles: "Lord Howe's Action, or the 'Glorious First of June' 1794" (1795) by Philip James de Loutherbourg and Turner's "Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805" (1822). Barring a trip to Britain's National Maritime Museum, where usually these pictures are displayed together in the same way, this is a rare opportunity to see clearly how snugly Turner fit into the tradition of marine painting in Britain and Europe while at the same time outpacing his contemporaries.
Despite superficial similarities in the handling of their respective battles (to my eye, primarily in the look of smoke and sails mid-battle), Turner's composition is the more dramatic. Along the lower center section of his painting he pushes the action out of the frame. The corner of a raft, with sailors seeking rescue, seems to poke out of the picture plane.
Turner & the Sea travels from Europe to the New World mapping out marine painting in and around Turner's time and his impact on it. The show encompasses Turner's mastery of oils, watercolors, and mezzotint—as well as the rendering of seagoing vessels. While all are important, it is likely that modern audiences will respond most to his watercolors. The impressively detailed early watercolors eventually give way to expressive, nearly abstract studies of sea and sky, sometimes with the barest hint of a horizon line. The earlier works will satisfy realists; the latter, fans of modern art. While it's unlikely these watercolors are truly abstract, Turner's famous later oils do obviously point the way toward Impressionism.
Plan to spend some time on this exhibition. It's worth seeing (several times, if you can) numerous examples of Turner perfecting his art: the painting of water and weather where they meet in the marine painting tradition. For more information on the exhibit visit the Peabody Essex Museum website
Peabody Essex Museum is having an Instagram competition. How do you celebrate your love affair with the sea? Post your photos on Instagram and use the hashtag #meandthesea