An exhibit of the paintings from the last few decades of his life, currently at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, is called "Painting Set Free" because he upended painting as it was known in his time, opening up new approaches that have influenced painters ever since.
What he really loved was landscape painting, but he was a little self-conscious about this because in his time it was ranked below history painting, so most of his landscapes and seascapes are associated with well-known stories from Roman or British history, especially in the early part of his career. Later he began depicting current events and contemporary interests.
No matter what the subject, all his paintings are dominated by atmospheric light effects, sometimes driven to imaginary heights. He developed skill at accurate rendering of a scene early on, but as he aged, his work became less detailed, more vague, approaching abstraction; sometimes light in itself becomes the subject. Seeking for atmospheric effects, his brushwork became loose and free, imitating the movements of wind and waves. This bravura brushwork was mind-blowing to his contemporaries and freed his successors to brush the paint expressively, to let the hand's movement support the painting's meaning.
My favorite paintings were from the 1830s when he was still using a lot of realism. One of his greatest works depicts a horrible fire that consumed the British Parliament in 1834. Turner actually witnessed this conflagration himself and made sketches at the time. It's ironic that horrible disasters like fire, volcanic eruptions, and atomic explosions can be quite beautiful when depicted in art, and the great fire is beautifully done. By contrast, the bridge across the Thames is an accurate architectural rendering. The dark streaks in the water, when examined closely, become various types of boats, and the muddy cloud around the bottom resolves into a crowd of onlookers on the opposite shore.
|The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 1834|
I shot all the photos in this post on my iPad.
Below is a very traditional work. It's ostensible subject, the god Mercury talking to the monster Argus, is just an excuse. What do you actually see? The mellow sun of the late afternoon lights up a distant port, a hovering castle, a lone tree, a babbling creek, a few cows in the foreground—and a couple of guys talking. They could be fishing or drinking beer. You may not have been any place quite this beautiful in reality, but you have been in settings that gave you the same rich, peaceful feeling. Who needs mythology?
|Mercury and Argus, 1836|
Two of his dreamiest paintings depict Rome. One imagines ancient Rome at the height of its power. To make it more interesting, he adds a story. In his day, all the educated men—the academics, art collectors, and critics who formed his audience—would know the story of Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus, but does it really matter? First we see a sunset with the moon rising; we see the grandeur that is Rome, with its great forums and towers and the mighty bridge across a river. We see people on both shores of the river. One boat crosses the river, where a small group of women await it. It is of minor interest to know that Agrippina, the woman in the small boat, is transporting back to Rome the ashes of her husband, Germanicus, who was killed in Antioch as a result of rivalries in the Imperial family. Her act had long been seen as a symbol of wifely devotion, but Turner also thought the murder heralded the decline of Imperial Rome. The light expresses fading glory.
|Ancient Rome: Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus, 1839|
Its companion piece depicts Modern Rome, modern to the artist in the early 1800s. It shows Rome in picturesque ruins, occupied by cattle. The painting is constructed in three bands. The top section, almost half the picture, is limpid blue sky, perhaps in the early morning. Across the middle is a pink and yellow atmosphere that resolves into highly detailed renderings of well-known buildings, including modern churches as well as the ancient coliseum and the forum. Across the bottom, so muddy it seems insignificant, people are camping and goats are grazing; the rise and fall of the Roman Empire was an important subject in British education.
|Modern Rome—Campo Vaccino, 1939|
Venice is one of the most atmospheric cities in the world, and Turner loved it there, returning frequently to paint picturesque vistas. Notice that his palette is becoming more restrained; shades of white dominate this image.
|The Dogano, San Giorgio, & Citella, 1842|
During the 1840s, some of his paintings come close to ditching subject matter altogether. In this depiction of a snow storm at sea, the steam-boat is little more that a dark blob in a swirl of dark and light; in fact, the whole image reminds me of a black hole sucking in everything around it, even the light.
|Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth, 1842|
In the next painting, supposedly of a sea monster at sunrise, what you see is weak sun irradiating a hazy fog; the ocean is barely indicated and the monster is a slightly darker blob with eyes. The subject is the thinnest excuse to paint foggy morning light; your eye is drawn toward a yellow pool like your soul being drawn toward spiritual depths.
|Sunrise with Sea Monsters, c. 1845|
The story goes that Turner's dying words were, "The sun is god." You could certainly believe that he felt this way. Here's his version of the Apocalypse, the last days of the world; an angel in the middle of a golden aura announced the end. If you study the vague swirl around the figure you can see scenes of violence from the Old Testament, but from a distance it looks a lot like a close-up of the sun with its solar flares.
|The Angel Standing in the Sun, 1846|
For the last three paintings of his life, he returned to a mythical interpretation of the history of Rome. The story of Aeneas and Dido is complicated to explain, though well-known at the time, and the figures in the paintings are unpleasantly muddy to view. The following example shows that what Turner really wanted to render in paint was a radiant shaft of light pouring through the middle of a darkish landscape, dividing it in half. For what? Perhaps to represent the gap between good intentions and action? Perhaps to show the force of destiny infusing the situation? He just wanted to focus on that light, like the light at the end of the tunnel when you pass into the afterlife.
|Mercury Sent to Admonish Aeneas, 1850|
I'm not saying Turner is my favorite painter—haziness and muddiness can be hard to take—but he was an important influence on the history of painting because he was a great talent and he had a great mind. I was happy to have paid him a visit.