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Turner: The Late Seascapes


The defining years of one of the 19th century's greatest and most accomplished artists is the focus of Turner: The Late Seascapes, a major exhibition which opened at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute on June 14, 2003. The exhibition of works by J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) explores the final decades of his career when, at the height of his artistic powers, Turner painted the ocean as a stage for human drama and action. Approximately 35 oil paintings and watercolors, including several never before seen in the United States, represent the summation of Turner's life's work and the culmination of his lifelong fascination with the sea. The exhibition is organized by the Clark Art Institute and the Manchester City Galleries, Manchester United Kingdom, and will also travel to the Glasgow City Art Galleries. The Clark is the only North American venue for Turner: The Late Seascapes. (right: Van Tromp Going About to Please His Masters, Ships a Sea, Getting a Good Wetting, exh. 1844, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)

"This exhibition is the first to examine the marine subjects that Turner painted at the end of his life," said Michael Conforti, director of the Clark Art Institute. "Not only will viewers be swept away by the power and magnificence of these turbulent paintings, but they will also have the opportunity to gain new insights into the obsession with the sea that defines so much of this British master's work."

"The sea is a stage on which Turner enacts and reenacts past, present, and future, uniting them in his paintings into an integrated and enthralling narrative," said James Hamilton, guest curator of the exhibition and eminent Turner specialist from the University of Birmingham, England. "Flowing freely around his beloved islands of Britain, the sea bore tales of history, myth, drama, natural power, and human progress, which, across a painting career of sixty years, Turner articulated and launched again on seas of his own making."

The inspiration for the exhibition was Turner's dramatic Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water (1840) from the collection of the Clark Art Institute. Like many Turner paintings, Rockets and Blue Lights has been plagued with condition problems; it has long been known that the painting was retouched at an unknown date, perhaps to mask injury to Turner's original paint layers. In preparation for the exhibition, the painting has undergone conservation by David Bull in New York City, a leading conservator who has worked on numerous Turner paintings. The dramatic results, which include removing the overpainting (the layers of added paint) and discolored varnish, will be revealed for the first time in the exhibition. The Clark's rarely seen 1845 watercolor Brunnen, from the Lake of Lucerne will also be on view.

The paintings featured in Turner: The Late Seascapes range in date from the mid-1820s to the artist's death in 1851. The first work in the exhibition, Now for the Painter, (1827, Manchester Art Gallery) was painted when the artist was fifty years old and his mature style had set. While throughout his career, about one third of Turner's oil paintings are sea pieces, during the last decades of his life Turner painted more pictures of the sea than any other subject.

Turner painted the ocean both as the setting for historical and mythological paintings, such as Glaucus and Scylla (1841, Kimbell Art Museum), and as the backdrop for contemporary tales of the perils and pleasures of the sea. His subjects included shipwrecks, whaling, slave ships, and the then new technology of steamships. Turner often gave his paintings long, descriptive titles that served both as narratives and as lessons in seamanship for the viewer. The exhibition also examines the influence of Dutch masters Cuyp and Ruisdael on Turner's work. The artist's interest in the scientific advances of his age, including new oceangoing safety technologies, optics, and photography, is explored.

In addition to the two works from the Clark collection, the exhibition will include six paintings from the world's greatest collection of Turner paintings, Tate Britain. Other British collections lending to Turner: The Late Seascapes are the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, and the Ulster Museum, Belfast. Prominent American lenders include the National Gallery of Art, Washington, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, the Fogg Museum of Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, and the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven.

A fully illustrated catalogue by Hamilton will be published in June by Yale University Press in association with the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. The 160-page catalogue includes 80 color plates. The Clark and Yale University Press recently announced a partnership that includes the co-publication of the Turner catalogue, the spring 2003 catalogue Renoir and Algeria, and "Clark Studies in the Visual Arts," a series of publications of the proceedings of research and academic programs at the Clark.

Following its debut at the Clark Art Institute (June 14 through September 7, 2003), Turner: The Late Seascapes will be seen at the Manchester City Art Gallery from November 1, 2003 through January 17, 2004, and to the Burrell Collection, Glasgow City Art Galleries, from mid-February to early May, 2004.

The Clark will offer a full range of public programs in connection with the exhibition, including public lectures and family programs. Turner: The Late Seascapes is the latest in a series of major exhibitions at the Clark that advance new scholarship and critical thought while generating public interest. Recent exhibitions organized by the Clark in partnership with leading European institutions have included the popular and critically acclaimed Impression: Painting Quickly in France, 1860-1890 and Gustav Klimt Landscapes.  Upcoming exhibitions include Edouard Baldus: Landscape and Leisure in Early French Photography (Fall 2003) and Jacques-Louis David: Empire and Exile (Summer 2005).

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