Turner’s Modern and Ancient Ports: Passages Through Time

The Frick Collection | February 23 – May 14, 2017

Crossing like ships at sea, in Turner’s Modern and Ancient Ports: Passages Through Time, are political, historical, mythological and aesthetic themes that span the remarkable vision of Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 – 1851). The Frick Collection celebrates this British artist, lionized today for his explosive swirls of abstract color and light, with a selection of his luminous studies of European ports: harbors for the pursuits of everyday life that he renders as quotidian snippets in the infinite scheme of things.

J.M.W. Turner, Cologne, the Arrival of a Packet-Boat: Evening. Oil on canvas. 66 3/8 × 88 1/4 inches. Photo: Michael Bodycomb. Courtesy The Frick Collection.

Here in the Frick’s sumptuously paneled oval gallery are three grand works, the centerpiece of this show, and exhibited together for the first time: Harbor of Dieppe: Changement de Domicile (1825 – 26) and Cologne, The Arrival of a Packet-Boat: Evening (1826), both from the Frick’s collection, flank Harbor of Brest, The Quayside and Chateau (ca. 1826 – 28), an unfinished work on loan from Tate Britain. These dazzling oils traverse Turner’s depictions of contemporary port cities in Britain, France, and the Rhineland. Facing these works are another trio of large-scale oils depicting imaginary scenes of ancient Roman ports. And finally in a large adjacent gallery, the sweet spot in this exhibit: more than thirty watercolors, drawings, and prints—revelations of Turner’s genius for replicating the airy translucence of his watercolors in the radiant surfaces of his oil paintings.

Turner—a respected member of the Royal Academy—admired Claude Lorraine’s metaphoric seascapes, and saw ports as symbols of both real and imagined time. A Romantic-era rebel in pursuit of the elusive, he distilled immense and immediate worlds through the sea and sky’s fine mists and murky depths and, in so doing, journeyed to aesthetic realms that would not be fully explored until decades later, by 19th-century Impressionists and 20th-century Abstraction Expressionists.

Turner was already fifty years old, renowned and wealthy, by the time he painted the harbors of Dieppe, Cologne, and Brest due to strict travel bans Britain imposed in the twenty years following the French Revolution. 

Turner guides the viewer deep into Harbor of Dieppe by focusing the eye on a foreground reflection of a Claude-like golden sun that radiates towards the distant dome of St. Jacques. With fleets of bobbing vessels pictorially anchored by a shoreline stretch of eighteenth-century architecture, this vibrant city, packed tight with lively local types, visually shouts the refrains of consumer masses hot for newly manufactured wares—baskets, bottles and gilded picture frames piled high along the quay. But as he salutes the bounty of new industrial commerce, so does Turner target the day’s environmental pollution: a bare-legged damsel dips her feet, unaware of a turgid stream of waste spilling from a pipe lodged in the painting’s shadows. 

In Cologne, Turner aggressively captures the viewer’s eye with an intriguing abstract scrawl of fishing detritus stuck in silt behind a large tourist vessel, fat with wealthy women tourists. They in turn provide a narrative link to tourism —a sign of international mobility—with the rise and fall of civilization, for the Cologne shoreline is bare, save for some construction laborers rebuilding the Gothic city in ruins. But Dieppe and Cologne are both quintessential orchestrations of atmospheric light that render life sturdy, fragile, and ultimately as fleeing as clouds in the overhead skies.

Installation view: Works in the Oval Room, Turner’s Modern and Ancient Ports: Passages through Time, The Frick Collection, New York. Photo: Michael Bodycomb.

The collection’s inclusion of Turner’s unfinished work, The Harbor of Brest, here situated between the two aforementioned works—likely intended to together form a harbor series—decisively points to his stunning experiments with color as light. With no apparent under-drawing, Turner eschewed earth tones, primed his canvas white, chose industrial light-reflecting metallic pigments, and layered oil paints much as he did his transparent watercolors. As a result, the blinding ferocity of yellow light tearing through the backcloth of this canvas vaporize his blocked-in architectural and clumped human forms to faint elegies to time and place. As Ian Warrell in his catalog essay points out, the British critic, William Hazlitt (1778 – 1830), clearly baffled, described Turner as “a painter of nothing;” Turner’s retort, however, is thought to speak through his large, imagined Roman port scene, titled Regulus (exhibited 1828, reworked and exhibited 1837) after the Roman hero forced by his Carthaginian captors to stare into the sun until it blinded him. The inference here suggests that Turner’s critics were blind to his aesthetic vision.

Watercolor was Turner’s dominant medium, and his unflappable facility with it enabled him to transpose the complex compositions of his large oils to its smaller scale. Exemplary works on view include: Dover Castle from the Sea (1822), depicting fishing skiffs and a steamboat unfurling ribbons of smoke in choppy seas; Mont-St.-Michel (1827) eerily aglow in moonlight; and Cologne: Color Study (ca. 1824 – 32). Here Turner reduces a floating bridge to chunky brushstrokes skirting across water, the city’s signature towers a-blur in a wash of pale yellow and blue mist. Many of these watercolors served as sketches for England’s thriving 19th-century market for black and white engravings, the source of Turner’s considerable commercial success.

Within the galleries of the Frick, one feels uncannily connected with Turner’s love of the natural world; his fascination with industrialization; his ambivalence over its impact; his awareness of an international age riven by war; and his life in an age of freedom subject to travel bans. All of these things resonated within me as I stepped outside the museum, into a misty rain that dissolved the sturdy skyscrapers across Central Park.

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