I spent an entire morning last week attending an exhibition of paintings by J. M. W. Turner at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. The exhibition was titled, “Painting Set Free”, and, aside from the crowds of people throughout the museum, it was a very enjoyable and educational experience. I wanted to write about my visit right away but decided I might need a bit of time to digest what I saw.
For the last several months, I’ve been very tuned in to the tools artists use to create compositions and the illusion of depth in representational paintings. I was looking forward to looking at Turner’s paintings and unraveling the structures that underlie each work. As I walked around the first room, I was drawn to The Bright Stone of Honour (Ehrnbreitstein) and the Tomb of Marceau, from Byron’s ‘Childe Harold.’ My eyes followed the road past the people to the base of the mountains and snaked around to the right, along the edge of a body of water. The brilliant light and shadows create many pathways around the canvas for your eyes to follow. My take away, was the composition seems to hinge upon the underlying S-curve of the road, similar to the structure of many paintings of rivers. I walked through each room and identified the structures supporting each composition, some obvious and others, seeming to challenge convention. In some paintings, one point perspective and radiating lines guide you to clear centers of interest and the compositions are balanced and orderly, others compositions are swirling with activity. One of my favorites was The Angel Standing in the Sun.
After viewing most of the exhibit and looking at it with an eye toward understanding how the artist created the images, I was reminded why so many people are drawn to Turner’s paintings in the first place. I stood in front of one of the larger canvases, Fishing Boats Bringing a Disabled Ship into Port Ruysdael, and I was struck by the power of the image. Beyond the structure and composition of the work, I felt an emotional connection to the ships surrounded by haze and waves. Small ships pulling in a disabled vessel through a storm under a sky painted with layer after layer of wind and cold. The painting made me feel cold and afraid, as well as amazed by the human spirit and the bit of soul and feeling that went into the canvas.