Turner and the Sea

I’d originally planned to do a sunset ride along the East Bay this Monday, but I was feeling stiff after the night dive, and was also aware that it was the last day of the Turner and the Sea exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum. After checking the museum website to make sure they were open today, my mother and I headed north to see the exhibit.

While we were there, we saw their collection of nautical art, and Yin Yu Tang, an 18th century Chinese house, now relocated to Salem, and then it was time for the main exhibit.

Joseph Mallord William Turner was one of Britain’s premier artists around the turn of the 1800’s up until his death in 1851. He had an exceptional talent for use of light, and as his career progressed, his work became increasingly abstract, before abstract art came into vogue. This exhibit focused on his maritime work.

We both agreed that the exhibit was somewhat misleadingly named — yes, there were Turners there, but there were also a lot of other maritime painters represented — some were predecessors whose work inspired him, others were contemporaries inspired by him, and some were by contemporaries whose work inspired his competitive juices.

For me, the most impressive piece was Fishermen at Sea. It’s an oil painting of fishermen on the open ocean, with a full moon breaking through dark clouds, and transilluminating a breaking wave. Photographs don’t do it justice. The backlighting of the wave is superb, and in person, you can see the red glow of the fishermen’s charcoal fire. It’s a large painting, about 3 x 4 feet, and in person, you can see the details in the brush strokes. The photo I’ve linked to is somewhat greener than the actual picture.

The other standout is Battle of Trafalgar, painted at the request of the Prince of Wales (later George IV) as a companion piece to Loutherbourg’s The Glorious First of June. Both paintings are huge, taking up whole walls.

The exhibit ends with a bunch of his sketches and studies. When he died, he bequeathed many of his works to the British government, including many unfinished pieces and studies. Many of these are very abstract—some as a matter of style, and some possibly because they’re unfinished versions.

I enjoyed the the Turner exhibit and the standing exhibit of maritime art. There really is no substitute for getting close to a painting and being able to see the brush strokes, or being in the same room as a giant piece like the Battle of Trafalgar.