Luminous J.M.W. Turner Paintings in Fresh Context at The Frick

February 27, 2017 Updated: February 28, 2017

NEW YORK—Land and sea, sky and sun, fascinated the great British painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851). He traveled incessantly to ports and harbors to draw those points of entry and departure—teeming with ships and people trading and going about their business. He filled numerous sketchbooks with his studies. Back in his studio he would turn those little studies into monumental oil paintings, depicting that sense of journey and freedom that he experienced at the water’s edge—often against a brilliant sun.

Turner shared his fellow countrymen’s excitement for travel, especially because 18 years of travel restrictions had finally been lifted in 1815 at the end of the Napoleonic wars. Making at least 22 trips to Europe in his life, Turner depicted every kind of port: naval strongholds, fashionable resorts, industrial harbors, anchorages in major cities, and remote river landings from different points of view.

The exhibition at The Frick Collection, “Turner’s Modern and Ancient Ports: Passages Through Time” focuses on this mid-career period of Turner’s work starting at the age of 50.

"Cologne, the Arrival of a Packet-Boat: Evening," exhibited 1826, by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas 66 3/8 inches by 88 1/4 inches, The Frick Collection. (Michael Bodycomb)
“Cologne, the Arrival of a Packet-Boat: Evening,” exhibited 1826, by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas, 66 3/8 inches by 88 1/4 inches, The Frick Collection. (Michael Bodycomb)

Two of his paintings, depicting the harbor of Dieppe and of Cologne, which had been on display in the West Gallery for more than a hundred years, micro-traveled to the Oval Room in the Frick for the first time. Because these two paintings are restricted from traveling outside of the museum, they had never been the focus of a full exhibition of his works until now. It’s a marvelous opportunity to look at them afresh in a different setting. 

Senior curator at The Frick, Susan Grace Galassi, initiated the exhibition. “Even before anything else was in the room, I said to myself, the show is complete. You see them side-by-side—the daytime [Dieppe], the nighttime [Cologne]. It was a dialogue that hadn’t happened before and that was exciting,” said Galassi at a preview of the exhibition.

A closely related, yet unfinished work of “The Harbor of Brest,” from the Tate museum in London, is displayed in the center. Painted roughly within the same year as the painting of Dieppe and of Cologne (circa 1826), it was recognized as part of a series of northern European ports, probably intended for the same patron. 

The unfinished painting gives insight into Turner’s working methods. He set the composition with diluted layers of paint in tones of blue, ocher, orange, and yellow over a light-brown ground instead of the earth-tone ground that was conventional at the time. One can see how he developed the forms of buildings, boats, and people, modeling the degree of lights and darks with thin layers of paint. Further modeling would have brought the painting to the level of detail seen in “Dieppe” and “Cologne.” 

"The Harbor of Brest: The Quayside and Château," ca. 1826–28 by J.M.W. Turner.  Oil on canvas, 68 inches by 88 inches, Tate; Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 (Tate, London)
“The Harbor of Brest: The Quayside and Château,” circa 1826–28 by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas, 68 inches by 88 inches, Tate; accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856. (Tate, London)

“The Harbor of Brest” came with all of the objects in Turner’s studio as part of his bequest to the British nation on his death. It went to the National Gallery, where it was rolled up and left in the storeroom because it was not a finished painting. Discovered a hundred years later in 1943, “it was then unrolled, restored and brought back to the canon on Turner’s work as a fascinating companion that forms part of a series,” Galassi said. 

The trio is accompanied by oil paintings depicting imagined scenes set in ancient Carthage and Rome and more than thirty watercolors, sketchbooks, and prints in the East Gallery. Some are embellished with historical references and allusions.

"Ancient Italy—Ovid Banished from Rome," exhibited 1838, J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas 37 1/4 inches by 49 3/16 inches, Private collection (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Image source: Art Resource, NY)
“Ancient Italy—Ovid Banished From Rome,” exhibited 1838, J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas, 37 1/4 inches by 49 3/16 inches, Private collection. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Image source: Art Resource, NY)

It gives visitors the chance to see how Turner’s work developed in a broader context, not only in terms of his style but also in subject matter—even in minute details. For example, one sees lumber rafts floating in the Rhine River in one of his watercolors. That wood was transported from the Black Forest to places like Cologne. We see then see a stack of wood in a distribution center in Turner’s painting of the harbor in Cologne. “These lumber rafts could go up to a 1,000 feet,” Galassi explained. It indicates a “kind of mysticism of nature [contrasted] with human activity and industry in the foreground,” she added. 

Turner captured a period of sudden change, bearing witness to Britain’s imperial expansion and mass industrialization. His choice of depicting ports, as a recurring theme, gives a poignant glimpse into a thriving time of political, social, technological, and economic exchange set in a natural landscape. Yet, Turner hardly ever depicted the steamboats and high speed carriages that made his travels more efficient. Quiet wind-powered, sailboats dominate his port and harbor scenes. “What Turner actually appreciated was the sublime beauty. He represented them at a point just before they disappeared,” Galassi said. 

Light and Atmosphere

Turner’s mid-career period was not only of frequent traveling but also of experimentation. He was already a well established artist and a long-standing member of the Royal Academy, yet was controversial as he became more preoccupied with luminosity and atmosphere than with depicting nature accurately. 

He shifted from a naturalistic to a more atmospheric and abstract style, using new high-keyed colors that had just become available—chrome yellow and chrome orange.

An independent curator, Ian Warrell called it “poetic topography” in the exhibition catalogue. “Turner is moving towards a topography invested with imagination and a great deal of invention,” Galassi added.

"Regulus," exhibited 1828, reworked and exhibited 1837, by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas, 35 1/4 inches by 48 3/4 inches, Tate; Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856  (Tate, London)
“Regulus,” exhibited 1828, reworked and exhibited 1837, by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas, 35 1/4 inches by 48 3/4 inches, Tate; accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856. (Tate, London)

“When these paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy, people were a little bit aghast, because they had been to Dieppe too. They knew the sun was not this golden and airy and they felt he was heightening up nature, and that wasn’t done. Nature was fine onto itself—who was he to heighten up the effects,” Galassi said.

Turner’s oil paintings were controversial and did not sell as much as his watercolors from which he made most of his living. He was considered the greatest watercolor artist of his time, and, arguably, of all time.

Galassi explained that with the influx of tourism after 1815, people wanted pictures to entice them to travel or to remember the sights they saw. Print publishers were therefore very busy commissioning artists to create watercolor series from which engravings would be made. Turner was the artist most in demand, Galassi said. Many of his watercolors were made for British topographical serial print publications.

Turner often painted the same scenes in both of his mediums. He incorporated some of his watercolor techniques in his oil paintings, making them more luminous and translucent, and used the same grand compositions of this oil paintings in his small watercolors. He could achieve the effect of translucency of water in oil paintings as he freely achieved it with watercolors.

Devoted to His Art

Little is known about Turner’s personal life, as with most artists from centuries past. He spent three months a year drawing studies and gathering material under very hard circumstances, traveling via rudimentary means. 

Turner’s mid-career life was over dramatized in the 2014 movie “Mr. Turner.” The director Mike Leigh gives a rather skewed picture of him. “He probably comes across as more crude [in the film] than he may have been,” said Galassi and pointed out that one of the Turner paintings in The Frick Collection appears in the film. He was slightly eccentric and motivated by a deep desire to represent the world. Regardless of what his character might have been like, clearly, Galassi said, “he was a man totally involved with his art.”

"Sun-Rise: Whiting Fishing at Margate, for Marine Views," 1822, by J.M.W. Turner. Watercolor on paper, 16 3/4 inches by 25 1/2 inches, Private collection. (Courtesy of The Frick Collection)
“Sun-Rise: Whiting Fishing at Margate, for Marine Views,” 1822, by J.M.W. Turner. Watercolor on paper, 16 3/4 inches by 25 1/2 inches, Private collection. (Courtesy of The Frick Collection)

Turner’s Modern and Ancient Ports: Passages through Time will be on view from February 23 to May 14 at The Frick Collection (1 E 70th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan).

Related Programs


“Home Port: Dieppe and Cologne in The Frick Collection,” by Susan Grace Galassi, The Frick Collection. Wednesday, March 15, 2017, 6–7 p.m.

“The Rise and Fall of Civilizations: Seaports from Claude to Turner,” by Itay Sapir, Université du Québec à Montréal. Wednesday, April 12, 2017, 6 p.m.–7 p.m.

“Turner’s Sea Change,” by Ian Warrell, independent scholar. Wednesday, April 26, 2017, 6 p.m.–7 p.m.

All lectures are in The Frick’s Music Room and are free, but seating is on a first-come, first-served basis; reservations are not accepted. Click here for live webcast.


Guided School Visits for students grades 5 and up offered Tuesdays through Fridays. To schedule visit or call 212-547-0704.

High School Teen Night, a free evening of programs created especially for high school students. Admission is free with a valid school ID. Thursday, April 13, 5:30 p.m.–8:00 p.m. 

Evening for Educators, Monday, April 17, 4:00 p.m.–7:00 p.m. Educators and teachers are invited to view the exhibition when the museum is closed to the public. Free, but registration is required at visit

The Frick Connection: Turner Abroad, Wednesday, April 26, 5:30 p.m.–7:00 p.m. After-hours course for high school students, college students, and recent graduates under age 39. Free with Frick membership, for more info visit visit 


“J. M. W. Turner: Color, Light, and Meaning,” by Gillian Forrester, Yale Center for British Art Tuesday, March 14, at 6 p.m.–7:30 p.m.

“Past and Present in Turner’s Ports,” by Susan Grace Galassi and Joanna Sheers Seidenstein, The Frick Collection. Tuesdays, March 21 and March 28, at 6 p.m.–7:30 p.m.


Friday, March 3, 6 p.m.–9 p.m. Admission is free and on a first-come, first-served basis. Enjoy gallery talks, music performances, and sketching, or simply find yourself in the company of the Old Masters and art enthusiasts from around the world. #frickfirstfridays