Some artists are beloved for their late works, none more so than J.M.W. Turner. The British painter, who flourished in London in the first half of the 19th century, is celebrated for the daringly blurry seascapes he painted in the 1840s, the decade before he died. Working in both oils and watercolors, he dissolved buildings, figures and other staples of the visible world in broad washes of color that were later seen to mark the advent of abstract painting. American art historians tend to treat Turner as an essential precursor of the Abstract Expressionist movement that ascended in New York a century after his death. They draw a direct line from Turner’s seascapes to Mark Rothko’s floating rectangles of orange and red.
Yet “Turner’s Modern and Ancient Ports: Passages of Time,” a small, fascinating exhibition of 35 works currently at the Frick Collection, gives us a new view of the artist. It ignores the late works in favor of his relatively uncelebrated middle years. The Frick happens to own two large-scale paintings from the 1820s that offer views of bustling European ports – the port in Dieppe, and the port in Cologne. The show reunites them with the third painting in the series, an unfinished view of Brest on loan from the Tate Gallery in London. Taken together, the port scenes are a model of European romanticism, with sweeping views of the sky and tiny human figures that tend to get lost in the scenery.
But if you step up close, you can make out hundreds of figures engaged in their daily routines. There are women with wicker baskets and clay jugs and vendors selling fish. In “Harbor of Dieppe,” the busy townspeople on the right side of the canvas contrast with a ghostly absence on the left side. A ball of white-to-yellow light hovers in the sky and is reflected in the water, which is the color of melted butter. You can feel Turner breaking from the naturalistic world into the lit realm of his imagination. You can almost see, in the sky and sea, two “great balls of fire,” as Jerry Lee Lewis sang in an altogether different context.
The show, coincidentally, arrives at a time when Turner’s life story has been gaining attention outside of the academy. As a personality, he was nothing if not eccentric. The son of a barber, he lived with his father for most of his life and had no patience for social niceties. A new biography of him by the British writer Franny Moyle emphasizes his working-class origins and fascinating ascent to the apex of the British art world. The book confirms the unsettling view of the artist that emerged from Mike Leigh’s vivid 2014 film, “Mr. Turner,” which acquaints you with a world-class sourpuss, a fat, frowning man in a black top hat, growling at everyone around him.
His dyspeptic personality contrasts with the spirit of his work, which finds beauty in nature and especially in sunlight. There are watercolors in this show that are breathtaking. The Frick, by the way, is prohibited from lending the works in its collection to other museums. Upon his death, the works that Turner still owned were bequeathed to the people of England, and fortunately the people of England can lend to the Frick.