At the Art Gallery : An Exhibition of Paintings by JMW Turner

jmw-turner-at-ago-art-gallery-of-ontario-toronto painting set free

There’s a new major exhibition on at the AGOJMW Turner : Painting Set Free, on display until January 31, 2016.

Turner, known as “the painter of light”, was born in the heart of London England in 1775. He lived until 1851, to the age of 76, which was a remarkable achievement in itself, considering the average age expectancy back then was only 38 years old. So, in today’s years, this would have been as though he’d lived to be well over 100.

But more noteworthy than his extremely long life, is the way in which he used those years, creating over 30,000 pieces of art. (I had to double check with our guide, to make sure I’d heard that number correctly). Being a child prodigy who showed his first piece in a prestigious art exhibit at the young age of 15, Turner never stopped creating, right until his last exhibit, the year before he died. It took 100 years for his extraordinary number of works to be accurately catalogued and accounted for.

Turner’s early life had been difficult, in that his younger sister and only sibling, had died at the the age of five, sending his mother into a state of mental disturbance that ultimately resulted in her receiving long-term care. So, he was sent to live with an uncle just outside of London, at a young age. However, he always maintained a very close relationship with his father, who lived with him and acted as a studio assistant until his death.

In spite of having been offered a lot of money for the pieces that remained with him, towards the end of his life, (one account claims he was offered 100,000 pounds at one point, which would be worth 12 million pounds today), he chose to bequeath his unsold works to the state of Britain at the time of his death instead, so that they would be freely enjoyed by the people, rather than hidden within the homes of the affluent. This was a choice he was able to make because, in addition to being a talented artist, he was a skilled businessman, so he was able to earn a very good living for himself from his art, while he was alive to enjoy it.

He was such a good businessman in fact, that in addition to being able to donate his work, he was left with a small fortune in cash and assets when he died, which he wished to donate to artists in need of financing. This dream to give to artists was not achieved however, because his extended family fought the will successfully.

Today Turner is thought to be Britain’s foremost landscape painter ever and over 300 of his paintings, plus thousands of his watercolours and sketches are owned by The Tate Gallery in London, (details of which can be found here).

There is so much more of interest about Turner’s life and art that I could go on and on, however, there is already plenty written about him on the internet, beginning with this Wikipedia page. Also, the 2014 biographical movie about his later years, Mr. Turner, directed by Mike Leigh, is excellent. See the trailer here. It’s currently showing on Netflix, in Canada at least — I’m not sure about the rest of the world. Now that I’ve seen these breathtaking paintings in real life, I plan to watch the movie again.

The exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, includes 50 paintings, all on loan from The Tate. The paintings are works created during the last 15 years of his life, including three pieces that hung in the last show he lived to attend. The exhibit has already hung in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and is the only one that will be held in Canada.

Note that the AGO has extended their regular hours on Wednesdays and Fridays, to 9pm, giving you plenty of time to enjoy the art in the evening. Again, the show runs until January 31, 2016. Tickets may be purchased on the AGO Website.

I don’t think that I’m ruining anything by showing you some of the paintings here, because, of course, they are so much more impactful and stunning to see in real-life, but if you’d prefer your first viewing of them to be in person, stop reading here! (Note : These are not shown in the order in which they are displayed in the exhibit.)

Leading the tour was the Interpretive Planner at the AGO, David Wistow. His vast knowledge and insight added so much to the experience of seeing these stunning pieces, and I very much appreciated being invited.




↑ Snow Storm Steam Boat off a Harbours Mouth – It is said that Turner painted this dramatic ocean storm scene after having had himself lashed to the mast of a ship for several hours, in the midst of a snow storm. ↑


↑ During his extensive travels, Turner painted this scene of a canal in Venice, from a vantage point in front of the hotel he was staying in, The Europa. I’ve included a recent photograph of this scene, taken over 170 years later, below. ↑


↑ The same Venice canal that Turner painted. You can see the roof of the hotel where he stayed, in the lower right. (Photographer unknown – photo found on Flickr.) ↑


↑ This painting, called Peace Burial at Sea, depicts the burial of a close friend of Turners, the artist David Wilkie. ↑


↑ Notice the duck in the bottom left? Turner’s middle name was Mallard, so he included himself in the painting by including an image of a Mallard Duck. ↑


↑ One of Turner’s watercolour paintings, The Red Rigi. Given the nature of the medium, these are extremely fragile and we are fortunate that some of the watercolours were permitted to travel. After the run of this show, they will be put away properly for quite some time, so that they may last for future generations to see. ↑


↑ War – The Exhile and the Rock Limpet ↑


↑ The Angel Standing in the Sun ↑


↑ Undine Giving the Ring to Massaniello Fisherman of Naples ↑


↑ The question and challenge, “How did Turner paint rough seas before the advent of photography? He used his imagination to create a still image. Try it yourself”, is posed via a large video installment with a stormy ocean scene. ↑



↑ This is a photo of a painting by William Parrott depicted Turner completing his work while the painting hung in a gallery on “Varnishing Day” – a day prior to and exhibit opening to the public, when artists could add finishing touches. Turner enjoyed these days and was notorious for bringing partially completed paintings to work on there, amoung all the other artists and gallerists. ↑



↑ Art critics and collectors often questioned whether a JMW painting was actually completed. This one, entitled Norham Castle at Sunrise, is one that people wondered about. Completed or not, looking at it was a moving experience. ↑




↑ The Departure of the Fleet is one of the paintings that hung in the final show that Turner attended in 1850. It is one of the only paintings thought to still be displayed in the original frame that was chosen for it by Turner. Apparently it and the painting had become separated at some point over the years, however, upon cleaning it an inscription was found on the frame, describing exactly which painting it went with. This frame was used as a template from which to create more like it, in current days. ↑


↑ This is a photo of a painting done of Turner by his friend and art critic, John Ruskin. It was apparently of Turner as seen at that last exhibit of his work that he attended. ↑


Beyond the silhouette of Turner is the little gift shop that the AGO set up to sell some prints and other items related to the era and England. It is very nicely done, so much so that I’ll do a quick follow-up post tomorrow showing you some shots of the shop, since this post is long enough already!

Thank you very much for dropping over,
xo loulou

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