There's always something too good to be true about famous last words. Did Oscar Wilde really say, "Either that wallpaper goes or I do"? I certainly hope so, but still. So we should be careful with the claim that in his last recorded utterance, a few weeks before he died, the English painter J.M.W. Turner, the man who whipped up force fields of light, who could make light obliterate almost everything it fell on and then make it spell out everything else, turned to somebody and said, "The sun is God."
If he didn't say that, he certainly should have. Turner devoted his life to light, even when his public couldn't follow him into it. His admirers, and they included the great polemicist John Ruskin, called him the supreme English painter of his day. His critics, and there were more of them all the time, thought his watercolors were "crude blotches" and his oils a "gross outrage." They also routinely called him insane (which hurt--his mother had died in Bedlam, the London asylum). Their complaints boiled down to the same thing. Turner made light tangible but things illegible. Or, as the essayist William Hazlitt put it in a still famous wisecrack, he made "pictures of nothing, and very like."
The last time there was a major Turner show in the U.S., 41 years ago, he was treated as a forerunner not only of the Impressionists but also of the Abstract Expressionists and color-field painters, of Mark Rothko and his pulsing fogs or Morris Louis and his washes of diluted pigment. But in recent years, scholars have been at pains to draw Turner back into the context of his times, to emphasize that he was eager to paint history and contemporary events and to look to the past as much as the future.
The phenomenal new Turner exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, which travels next to Dallas and New York City, is a show in that vein. With almost 150 works, it's a full picture of the entire man. All the same, while people will come away impressed by Turner the painter of historic events and modern horrors, one as forceful and sometimes as original as Goya, the man they'll be in awe of is still that other Turner, the incandescent bulb, the great conductor of solar power.
For an artist so taken by the sun, Turner was no Apollo. He was short, squat and beak-nosed. The offspring of a London barber, he spoke all his life with a Cockney accent. Even after he started to make good money, which happened soon, his fingernails were caked with pigment, and he kept one of them long, like a blues guitarist does, so that he could use it to scratch directly into the paint. Like Billy Joel or Elton John, he was a commoner who made good.
He came of age in the last years of an era of great English portraiture, of Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds and George Romney, when the British gentry were eager to be commemorated in the full regalia of the ruling classes. The elderly Reynolds was still president of the Royal Academy when the 14-year-old Turner was admitted to the Academy's school. But Turner would have been a disaster as a portraitist. He could draw as well as the best of them. In watercolor he could produce something like molecular detail, notwithstanding that one of his typical techniques was to soak the entire sheet in water, rub in raw pigment, blot it with rags and sponges and then painstakingly work up finer detail within the misty blooms of color. Yet as he matured, his deepest impulse wasn't to delineate form but to dissolve it. And where was the earl who wanted to be remembered as a blot?
At the turn of the 18th century, history painting was the highest purpose art could serve, and Turner would attempt those heights all his life. But his real achievement would be to make landscape the equal of history painting. More than that, he made it a kind of history painting, in which nature operates as a surrogate for the force of events. In his thunderous Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps, it's not even clear just where Turner has placed the Carthaginian general. Could he be that minuscule silhouette in the middle distance on a tiny elephant, the one dwarfed by the coiling surf of gray-brown cloud above his head? As the great storm explodes across the canvas, devouring the sickly yellow coin of the sun, the mighty general is just a comma in the larger scheme. This isn't merely history taking place in a landscape. It's landscape as the judgment of history.
And the Britons who crowded to see it in 1812 would not have missed Turner's mocking reference to Napoleon, who had just begun his advance into Russia. Twelve years earlier, the Little Colonel had been famously painted by Jacques-Louis David on a rearing horse, preparing to cross the Alps at St. Bernard Pass. The maelstrom that engulfs Hannibal, who would eventually be worn down by the Romans, is Turner's way of predicting that Napoleon would be cut down to size too. In the same way, The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834, Turner's furious account of the fire that destroyed the old seat of government, was understood in his own time--just like the fire itself--as a judgment on the corruption of Parliament.
Turner didn't always deal in turmoil. His great hero was Claude Lorrain, the 17th century French landscape painter who invented formats like the idealized harbor, places flanked by classical piles, where a setting sun bears down gently on the horizon. In Caernarvon Castle, an early watercolor flushed with orange twilight, Turner took Lorrain's tranquil model and invested it with the nostalgia and high-minded melancholy of English Romanticism.
He may not convince you that the sun is God. But he never lets you doubt that it's good.