Turner and Venice

Turner and Venice

February 15, 2004 to May 30, 2004

The first exhibition ever devoted to Joseph Mallord William Turner’s celebrated views of Venice was shown at the Kimbell Art Museum from February 15 to May 30, 2004. “Turner and Venice” was seen only at two museums around the world—Tate Britain, London (October 9, 2003–January 11, 2004) and the Kimbell Art Museum. In its showing at the Kimbell, it was the first Turner exhibition of such scale and importance to be seen in the United States since 1966.

Commented Timothy Potts, director of the Kimbell Art Museum, “Turner’s deep visual and emotional engagement with Europe’s most famously romantic city resulted in some of the greatest masterpieces of the 19th century. ‘Turner and Venice,’ the first exhibition to bring these works together, is one of those rare exhibitions that is both a major art-historical event and a ravishing visual experience.”

The sublime, floating city of Venice, described by Michelangelo as a work of art in itself, has inspired an endless stream of artists. Each has attempted to capture its beauty in his or her own way, from Canaletto in the 18th century to Claude Monet and others in the modern era. Still, few have found such a true echo of their own sensibility in the Venetian scene as the British painter J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851). “Turner and Venice” spanned the twenty years between his first visit in 1819 and his last in 1840. His many paintings, watercolors, and drawings of the city form one of the richest themes in his mature work, a testament to one of the most compelling encounters of artist and place in the history of art.

That this was the first exhibition to focus on Turner’s trips to Venice is a remarkable fact, considering both the crucial importance of the city in Turner’s work and the sustained popularity of his Venetian views since they were first exhibited at the Royal Academy in his own lifetime. Even within a career that was remarkable for its successes and innovations, Turner’s images of Venice were quickly recognized by their first viewers as some of his most magical works. The use of vibrant color, which was generally a problem for his contemporaries, seemed in these paintings to be absolutely at one with the subject matter.

Commented Potts, “Turner was the most individual and visionary genius of European painting of his age. His paintings—full of vibrant color, expressive brushwork, and Romantic spirit—were a revelation to his contemporaries, and pointed the way to many later developments in modern art. He was an inspiration to the Impressionists, who shared his infatuation with the elemental qualities of light and color, air and water. Like the Impressionists, Turner has held his freshness and appeal throughout the modern period. In the United States, he was admired particularly by the Abstract Expressionists, who felt a natural kinship with his almost abstract images of scintillating color and light.”

The exhibition comprised 33 oils and 128 works on paper. At its core was a large group of works from the spectacular riches of the Turner Bequest at the Tate in London. These were brought together, in many cases for the first time since the artist’s own day, with closely related works from other collections across the world. Many of these works had not been on exhibition in recent years, and some of the watercolors were displayed for the very first time, including several of the Romantic and mysterious studies Turner painted of Venice by moonlight. Among other highlights of the exhibition was the chance to see pairs of pictures that were conceived as pendants, but which had been separated since they were sold, shortly after being completed. The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of the Europa from the Tate, for instance, was reunited with a view of the Venetian cemetery island, The Campo Santo, from the Toledo Museum of Art.

In the words of the great critic and artist John Ruskin, Venice was “the Paradise of cities.” It was both unforgettably beautiful and redolent of historical and artistic associations. For some, the remains of its glorious past served only to heighten the sense of decay and melancholy about its present state. Seeming to hover and dissolve between water and air, the city’s appearance lent itself readily to the technical experimentation of Turner’s later career––when he developed the free, sometimes near-abstract style for which he is admired today, and whose lack of “finish” attracted much controversy in his own time. “Turner and Venice” provided an opportunity to see Venice more completely through the eyes of this great “painter of light” than ever before, showing the full range of his responses to its many famous sights, and the development of his vision of the city over three decades.

Although today Turner is remembered as a radical and revolutionary, he was deeply conscious of his place in art history and of the other artists––both predecessors and contemporaries––who had made Venice their subject. The exhibition took up this theme, allowing Turner’s work to be seen beside that of his Venetian models, as well as compatriots such as Richard Parkes Bonington, Clarkson Stanfield, Samuel Prout, and Ruskin. The influence of Titian and Tintoretto was also explored, as well as that of Canaletto, the most admired of all cityscape painters at the outset of Turner’s career. Turner’s interest in literary evocations of Venice, notably those of Shakespeare and Lord Byron, also shaped and defined his reactions, and were examined in the exhibition.

Turner made his name in the early 1790s as a topographical watercolorist. He made his debut as a painter in oils at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1796, and was elected a Royal Academian in 1802. A staunch supporter of the Royal Academy throughout his career, from 1812 he showed some of his paintings at the R. A. exhibitions with lines from his own poem “Fallacies of Hope.” Turner was technically brilliant and enormously ambitious. His work addresses such themes as the fate of empires, the vanity of human endeavor, and the transience of life. The oils and watercolors of his middle to late career, from the 1820s onward, suggest a world in spectacular dissolution, and some of his last paintings treat subjects of a visionary nature. He died at his cottage on the Thames at Chelsea, and is buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Tate now owns his bequest to the nation—some 300 of his own paintings and 19,000 watercolors and drawings.

“Turner and Venice” was organized by Tate Britain, in association with the Kimbell Art Museum, and was curated by Ian Warrell, curator, Tate collections. It was supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. Promotional support for this exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum was provided by American Airlines, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and NBC5.

Caption: Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Dogana, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of the Europa (detail), exhibited Royal Academy 1842, oil on canvas. Tate, London