by the light of the sun

the paintings of j.m.w. turner

Once: I stood in front of a painting for longer than usual, blinking, because I was blinded by the sun. Beside me was a person I loved, and who also loved art, and he turned to me and whispered, “This is the most amazing painting I have ever seen.”

One of the perils of studying art history—a discipline that deals with the development, philosophy, and history behind the bright and beautiful products of humanity—is what happens when I am asked to describe a work of art with words. Distill the soft swells of Mona Lisa’s face into a paragraph; in one word, specify what expression a naked Olympia wears, and, in a sentence, how that expression makes a man grow quiet. It often falls to art history practitioners to distill the nuances of a work of art, usually a visual form, into an allotted number of words, and it is in this that I find the most unavoidable failure. I could write about the sun in this painting, how it was so brilliant I couldn’t breathe, and you would never believe me.

The painting in question hangs in the Frick Collection, a house-turned-museum located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, New York. The building originally was the home of the highly successful industrialist Henry Frick, who dreamt about steel bars and the clank of the railroad and the hush of paintings in the midmorning light of his living room. I, and my companion, had the opportunity to visit the Frick Collection in a museum-filled trip to New York City this summer. Maybe it was the summer sun, but the Frick Collection remained and remains the apex of all museums we visited. At the time we went, the museum was publicizing the exhibition of Frederic Leighton’s “Flaming June,” a portrait of a woman in a luminous and diaphanous orange dress, her head nestled into the crook of her arm. It is a beautiful painting, sensual and tranquil; when we looked at it we were quiet, as if not to wake her up.

But even a flaming woman could not match the radiance of the sun in “The Harbour of Dieppe,” a painting done around 1826 by English painter Joseph Mallord William Turner, the most “versatile, successful, and controversial landscape painter of nineteenth-century England,” according to Elizabeth Barker, Turner’s biographer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to the Frick Collection’s website, Turner “painted three large exhibition pieces representing northern Continental ports,” one of which is “The Harbour of Dieppe”, rather lesser known in the overall canon of Turner’s work.

Once: I stood in a different country, in front of a different Turner painting, with a different companion. This time it was England, and my father and I were at an exhibition at the Tate Britain called “Late Turner: Painting Set Free.” I hadn’t known, because I hadn’t asked, that J. M. W. Turner is my father’s favorite artist; I’d always assumed it was Monet, because my father loves water lilies. During the later years of his life, Turner, who had always been held in remarkably high esteem by the Royal Academy and the artistic community of Britain, slipped into notoriety for his increasingly abstract work, using loose handling of paint and a tendency toward the atmospheric that prefaced the oncoming style of Impressionism in the nineteenth century.

My father and I stood in front of a watercolor painting entitled “The Blue Rigi: Sunrise,” painted in 1847 of the Swiss Mount Rigi, seen from Lake Lucerne. We were both very quiet, and in the space between looking at the painting and turning to look at my father, I heard him exhale in happiness. “Look, Gaby,” he said. “Look at the sun.”

My father is a lawyer who once wanted to be an engineer, and he never studied art history in any formal sense. But this is the gift of Turner, a man born to a barber father and a mother who came from a family of butchers. Turner’s art, unlike certain works of modern art, is accessible; you don’t have to study art history or visual arts to appreciate the beauty of his works, to feel some shift in the spirit as you look at a mountain at sunrise or a bustling harbor awash in light. We have all felt the sun on our faces.

Turner believed in this idea, that art shouldn’t be restricted to those who could afford to access it or who had the education to “understand” it; he bequeathed his unsold, finished paintings to the British nation upon his death. The Tate Gallery in London received 300 hundred oil paintings and more than 20,000 works on paper. Unlike most North American museums that also boast of having Turner in their collections, admission to the Tate is free.

Just to the right of my bed, on the wall, I’ve tacked a postcard of Turner’s 1840 painting, “The Slave Ship.” John Ruskin, one of the Victorian Era’s leading art critics and the first owner of this painting, wrote: “If I were reduced to rest Turner’s immortality upon any single work, I should choose this.” It is a painting of a scene so gruesome it remains immortal: a tempestuous sea, a flurry of birds and fish, the hands and shackles of the dead and dying slaves thrown overboard emerging from the water. In the sky, all the colors of a typhoon rage against the scene in the foreground, and I put this specific painting above my bed so that I might wake up every morning in the midst of such terrible beauty, into all those colors. And, cutting through the dark and the light and the terror and color, Turner painted a fierce white sun.

Proving the weakness of art historical writing, it is impossible to explain in an article of roughly 1000 words what it means to see Turner’s suns; how a painting of a harbor was so startling and beautiful that I couldn’t stop looking at it. I decided to study art history because I wanted to understand more about all kinds of art, and so that I could look at beautiful things and know a little more about why they were important. But Turner—I like to think he understood that beauty levels everyone.

I also study art history to answer the question: Why do people love art? Why do we worship at the altar of Turner, or in the waves of Winslow Homer, or the careful light of Rembrandt? The answer to this question, unsurprisingly, cannot even exist in one form, because the reasons why we love art are as universal and as specific as why we fall in love. The reasons I love J. M. W. Turner’s art are for the same reasons and for very different reasons than why my father does. But I like to think that when any of us look at a Turner painting, no matter if we study art history or don’t study at all, there is the same reflection in our eyes, the same light. And inwardly, or outwardly, there is some exclamation that uses amazing with the meaning it was meant to hold. These are paintings that can truly, truly astonish.

Turner believed in a supreme being, but the deity that held sway over the movements of his brush wasn’t superhuman. According to popular knowledge, Turner’s last words were, “the Sun is God.”