Take in the breathtaking works of J.M.W. Turner

The MFA will host a major Turner exhibit March 27 through July 10.

"Fall of the Rhine at Schaffhausen"

The renowned British painter Joseph Mallord William (J.M.W.) Turner was born in 1775, and died in 1851. That’s a fact. But due to his tendency to be more secretive than open about his life and work, in between those dates, there’s a lot of murkiness about the man.

“Turner’s Modern World,” the upcoming exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, may not help in putting the pieces of his life together, but the 100+ examples of his paintings, watercolors, drawings, and sketchbooks will certainly aim a spotlight on his creative gifts.

For those of you who have a craving for some background, here are a few tidbits about Turner that historians generally agree on.


He started with watercolors, then moved on to oils, was recognized as a prodigy, and had a Cockney accent. He studied art at the Royal Academy Schools, and painted scenery for the London stage. Known early on as a landscape painter, he moved on to seascapes, and eventually turned to subjects and themes of history, literature, and myth.

After painting numerous views of the Avon Gorge in southwest England, he earned the nickname “Prince of the Rocks.” He would tour around England, Scotland, Wales, and the European continent during the summer – discovering subjects and creating drawings – then return to his studio in winter to make paintings from them. His first successful exhibitions were at the Royal Academy, but he eventually opened his own gallery. His first royal commission was for his painting of “The Battle of Trafalgar.” Venice became one of his favorite subjects.

But seeing his pictures is worth a lot more than any words you might read about him. The MFA show will feature paintings from, among others, Tate Britain, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, and the MFA’s own collection.

Looking at the exhibit as a whole, you can appreciate Turner’s genius. Look at the pieces chronologically, and you will discover how he evolved as an artist, from the meticulous and more traditional approach of the breathtaking “Fall of the Rhine at Schaffhausen” (1805-6) to the nearly abstract “The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons” (1834) and the luminescent, impressionistic study “Venice with the Salute” (between 1840 and ’45), in which subject matter takes a back seat to ambience.


“Turner’s Modern World” runs from March 27 through July 10. A timed-entry ticket is required — tickets go on sale to members Feb. 2, and non-members Feb. 9. Exhibit price of $34 includes general admission to the museum. Kids 7-17 get in for $17.

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