Art Gallery of Ontario exhibit features watercolor master J.M.W. Turner

Dec 21, 2015

The Art Gallery of Ontario has brought in an art exhibition that some visitors have described as "thrilling" and "inspirational." It's the work of British painter Joseph Mallord William Turner. The exhibition is called "J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free" and focuses on the artist's late work, made after the age of 60. It comes to Toronto after having been shown at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. 

Midweek at the AGO is often a good time to take in exhibitions, away from the weekend crowds. Turner exhibitions are often popular with art enthusiasts and this one is no exception. Already scores of people have come to see the work of an artist considered one of Britain's greatest painters.

Turner was born in 1775. He was the son of a wigmaker. He is widely regarded as Britain's most original artist and possibly the greatest watercolorist of all time.

"People are interested in his life and his creativity and the paradox of his great innovative art and his peculiar personality and the details of his personal life," said Lloyd DeWitt, the AGO's curator of European Art.   

DeWitt says he is excited about the Turner exhibition and calls it a great opportunity for the AGO. DeWitt says the exhibition, from London's Tate Gallery, focuses on the artists later years, which was a time of ongoing experimentation and artistic license.

The work of J.M.W. Turner, depicted here in a 1799 self-portrait, is often considered a precursor to Impressionism.
Credit william-turner.org

"These are 15 of the most glorious years of his life when he's financially independent and when he doesn't have to kowtow to patrons or to the academy or to the public. He can do what he wants and he develops the personal iconography and he really sets his paintings free with aggressive brush work and intense expressiveness that really went far beyond what the critics and public were willing to accept," explained DeWitt.
 
Dewitt says even during his very final years, Turner was productive despite poor eyesight and physical limitations. He says Turner remains relevant and inspirational today.
 
"People love the story. People love the boldness, the focus, the absolute devotion to ones art that he represents, the independence, the desire to innovate. These are all deeply inspirational," DeWitt said.
 
The AGO's interpretive planner, David Wistow, helped plan the Turner exhibition.
 
"We've been incredibly lucky with this exhibition because it's never happened before in the history of the world. A major feature film has come out at the same time on Mr. Turner and it's a great film and we have free access to it. And short of showing Turner himself on camera, this is the next best thing. You really get a sense of the private man and the professional man," said Wistow.
 
Wistow describes Turner as an experimenter.
 
"He used not just brushes, but he used his fingers and he used a palette knife and he used the sharpened nail of his thumb to scratch. And he used stale beer and he used tobacco juice and he spat at the canvas," Wistow said.
 
To gauge the response of visitors and to determine the success of the exhibition, Wistow placed a guestbook for people to leave their comments.
 
"Maybe I'm surprised a little bit by, not just the fact that the words like thrilling appear frequently and inspirational, but they're very emotional comments.  There's no question the public feels some kind of visceral connection to these works," he said.
 
In the final settlement of his estate, the entire contents of Turner's studio were left to the British nation, including 100 finished oils, 182 unfinished oils and sketches, 300 sketchbooks and 30,000 drawings and watercolors.They are now housed at the Tate Gallery in London.

The Art Gallery of Ontario's exhibition of Turner's work runs until the end of January.