J.M.W. Turner paintings come from Tate to exhibition at Mystic Seaport Museum

When Nicholas R. Bell arrived at Mystic Seaport Museum three years ago, the senior vice president for curatorial affairs turned his attention to the new Thompson Exhibition Building.

He knew it had been built with grand ambition, to be worthy of world-class exhibits.

Thus Bell found himself at Tate in London, the British museum that houses the vast archive of J.M.W. Turner, famed painter of land and sea. Would they consider a Turner exhibit in Mystic?

"I think they were surprised," he acknowledged, "but I will always credit them with being good listeners. ... Over months we had a fairly nuanced conversation about what we might do here."

On Oct. 5, the dream became reality as Mystic Seaport Museum opened "J.M.W. Turner: Watercolors from Tate," which includes 92 watercolors and four oils. The show, which will remain up until Feb. 23, 2020, is a comprehensive retrospective with work from 1791 to 1846.

Any Turner exhibit in Mystic would be remarkable, but consider that this is the only North American stop for a show that has been seen in Rome, Santiago and Buenos Aires and goes next to Paris.

Not only that, but Tate curators created a bonus: "Turner and the Sea," a micro exhibit of maritime paintings exclusive to the Mystic engagement.

"We thought it would be nice to do a section on the sea, Mystic Seaport and all that, and there are so many marine subjects in the exhibition," said David Blayney Brown, Turner scholar and Tate's Manton senior curator of British art 1790-1850. "It seemed rather nice to pull out for Mystic ... because it's a seaport, and it's a whaling seaport."

"Turner and the Sea" includes the usual lighthouse and fishing scenes, but most dramatic are the whaling paintings — including "Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves," a large oil first exhibited in 1846.

Turner painted such scenes from book plates rather than experience.

"He was essentially reading the same source material as Herman Melville was reading for Moby Dick," Bell said.

In the watercolor "A Harpooned Whale" (1845), slashes of red explode from the whale, whose snout, eye and tail are suggested by ghostly pencil marks. On the back of this sketch, Bell said, Turner wrote: "I shall use this."

Turner's watercolors rarely travel, because of their fragility. After the tour, they are taken out of their frames and stored in Solander boxes to protect them from humidity.

"Watercolor, of course, is a fugitive medium. They do fade," Brown said. "We only show watercolors for controlled periods. ... We make sure we rest them for an equivalent period, or perhaps a double period, afterwards."

Brown added that Tate was interested in the tension between the mediums of oil and water as it put together this exhibit.

"When he started painting watercolors, he had the ambition to make them look more like oil paintings," he noted of Turner. "By the end of his life, he was starting to apply the lessons he'd learned as a watercolorist to painting in oil."

Born in 1775, the son of a barber and wig maker, Turner had by age 15 already exhibited at the Royal Academy. He made full use of his artist-teachers and began to travel farther from his London home, inspired by the rural landscapes he explored.

When he died in 1851, his will left his oil paintings to the British nation, but the Chancery Court later ruled that all his works should be turned over, thus saving more than 30,000 watercolors and sketches.

The exhibit's four oils may be grand, in both size and scope, but the smaller leaves from Turner's sketchbooks, in graphite and watercolor, are a more revealing window into the artist's methods.

Even the early works, such as "Stourhead: View over the Lake" (1798), show Turner's trademark blur of light and exquisite detail. You see tiny figures walking, a ploughman working the ground, and a ghostly building in the distance.

Later in life, travel would provide the artist with grander vistas than he had found in England, Scotland and Wales. Lake Lucerne, the Venice canals, and Mont Blanc begin to show up in his sketches. These provide barely a hint of landscape, with bold slashes of color — red marks in the sky, an orange smear of sun.

In "Venice: Looking across the Lagoon at Sunset" (1840), red and orange streaks dominate the sky, with vague hatch marks, almost like Japanese characters, representing dock pilings. In "Rain Falling over the Sea," from 1845, clouds stand out like an animal's ribs.

In "Venice Quay, Ducal Palace" (1844), one of the four oils, "it is difficult to say where the land ends and the water begins," as the exhibit notes put it.

Bell also has edited an accompanying book, "Conversations with Turner: The Watercolors," featuring an introductory essay from Brown and a series of dialogues with 16 scholars and artists.

The Seaport, encouraged by attendance at its Viking and Franklin Expedition exhibits in 2018, is hoping this rare look at Turner watercolors will attract visitors from a wide geographical area.

Although the Viking exhibit did particularly well, drawing 85,868 visitors, it was up during the Seaport's busy season when attendance is high anyway.

"I'm glad this Turner show is running from October to February," said Bell, "because I want to prove to people who care about culture, who care about art history, who care about the arts, that they should get off the couch on the coldest day of February and drive to Mystic, Connecticut, and they can have an exceptional experience they can't have anywhere else."

If you go

What: "J.M.W. Turner: Watercolors from Tate"

When: Through Feb. 23, 2020. Current hours 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; check Mystic Seaport Museum website for changes to hours and admission as the season progresses.

Where: Mystic Seaport Museum, 103 Greenmanville Ave., Mystic

Museum admission: $28.95 adults; $26.95 ages 65 and up; $24.95 ages 13-17; $18.95 ages 3-12; free for kids 2 and younger

Information: (869) 572-0711, www.mysticseaport.org

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