Sea and Sky, English Coast by J.M.W. Turner

Art of the Week

Joseph Mallord William Turner is one of the best-known and most influential British painters of all time, making his mark on history with a prolific collection of Romantic oil paintings, prints and watercolors. Turner’s work serves as an idiosyncratic bridge between depictive landscapes and evocative impressionism — pieces that are at their most powerful when viewed in person, astride one another and with insight into his process.

And now, Nashville’s Frist Art Museum is giving visitors in the U.S. their only chance to experience Turner this way. Currently on view until May 31, 2020, “J.M.W. Turner: Quest for the Sublime” is visiting Frist in its sole stateside appearance.

The show arrives via London’s Tate institution, which holds a bequest of Turner’s work totaling about 300 oil paintings, 30,000 sketches and watercolors and 300 sketchbooks. “Quest for the Sublime” features around 75 pieces, highlighting Turner’s career from the 1790s to the late 1840s. In addition to works that emphasize Turner’s signature accomplishments in finalized maritime painting, the exhibition seeks to offer visitors insight into his process through sketchbook studies, works in progress and unfinished watercolors.

“As time passes, there is a progression from a more substantial, three-dimensional style to one that is more impressionistic and less solid,” David Blayney Brown, senior curator of 19th century British art at Tate Britain, said in a release provided by Frist. “In these often-unfinished paintings, Turner stripped away subject and narrative to capture the pure energy of air, light and water.”

By demonstrating Turner’s groundbreaking ability to focus on pure energy through preliminary studies, “Quest for the Sublime” can provide visitors with additional insight into the effects of his signature finished works. Sea and Sky, English Coast, an 1832 gouache watercolor on display, wouldn’t have been exhibited as a final piece by Turner but, in hindsight, its elemental portrayal of color highlights an aptitude apparent in the artist’s finished landscapes.

“The modern concept of abstraction would not have been understood or endorsed in the 19th century, even by an artist as experimental as Turner,” according to Frist. “He would not even have intended such loose color beginnings to be exhibited during his lifetime. Nevertheless, in this and other studies in this section, as the elements of the composition are reduced to the barest representation of sea and sky, Turner’s intuitive ability to think of landscape in terms of pure color is revealed.”

This is a powerful way to see what makes Turner such an influential and iconoclastic legend in art history: his ability to imbue landscape painting with expressive, representative elements unlike any seen before.

“For Turner, psychological expression and the liberation of the imagination were of paramount importance,” Brown said. “He achieves these goals in images of the landscape that evoked human moods by portraying extreme contrasts of intense light and gloomy clouds, dramatic topographies and energetic brushstrokes.”

Frist Art Museum is located at 919 Broadway.

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