Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), nineteenth-century Britain’s greatest land- and seascape artist, depicted ports throughout his career, both in monumental oil paintings and in watercolors. An insatiable traveler and an artist with a deep fascination with light, topography, and local traditions, as well as with classical antiquity, Turner brought an innovative approach to the depiction of both modern and ancient ports. In the spring of 2017, The Frick Collection presented Turner’s Modern and Ancient Ports: Passages through Time, a major exhibition that brought together some thirty-five works from the 1810s through the late 1830s in oil, watercolor, and graphite that capture contemporary cities in England, France, and Germany, as well as imagined scenes set in the ancient world. It united for the first time the museum’s two paintings of Dieppe and Cologne with a closely related, yet unfinished, work from Tate Britain that depicts the modern harbor of Brest. The exhibition was organized by Susan Grace Galassi, Senior Curator at The Frick Collection; leading Turner scholar Ian Warrell; and Joanna Sheers Seidenstein, the Frick’s Anne L. Poulet Curatorial Fellow. It was accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, published in association with Yale University Press.
The springboard for this show was a pair of monumental paintings by Turner in The Frick Collection acquired by the museum’s founder over a century ago — the Harbor of Dieppe of 1825 and Cologne, The Arrival of a Packet-Boat: Evening of 1826. Due to travel restrictions, however, they had never before been part of an exhibition outside of the Frick. While they are widely recognized as significant turning points in the artist’s career, a focused examination of these works was long overdue and provided an ideal occasion to consider afresh one of the central motifs of Turner’s art. This exhibition also united for the first time Dieppe and Cologne with a closely related, yet unfinished, work from Tate that depicts the modern harbor of Brest. As supported by recent technical analysis, The Harbor of Brest was likely intended to form a series of monumental European ports with the two Frick paintings. This trio of canvases — all made at a time when Turner was experimenting with the representation of light — offers a fascinating glimpse into his technique as well as the everyday life of major European ports of distinctly different regions. Displayed alongside these paintings were two sketchbooks filled with drawings made on site by Turner during his travels to the Continent, the material from which he later developed his canvases.
The exhibition also featured three oil paintings from the later 1820s and 1830s in which Turner continues to explore the motif of the port, now as a setting for narrative scenes drawn from classical history: Regulus (London, Tate Britain); Ancient Italy: Ovid Banished from Rome (private collection); and Ancient Rome: Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus (London, Tate Britain). These evocations of ancient Rome and Carthage share with the artist’s modern ports their compositional format — a central expanse of water, with land on either side, beneath a luminous sky — and their array of quotidian detail — the same variety of mundane objects and figures at work and at leisure that appear in the Harbor of Dieppe and Cologne — now evoking the daily life of a long bygone era. Into these light-filled and richly detailed scenes, Turner integrates his narrative content — momentous scenes of arrival and departure that look forward and back. The close relationship of Turner’s modern and ancient ports reveals the extent to which observation and imagination overlap in his process.
Central to the exhibition was a selection of some two-dozen of Turner’s watercolors from these same years, often made for series of prints for a bourgeoning class of leisure travelers in the post-Napoleonic era. Representing port towns and cities along the various waterways of the British Isles and Continental Europe, these dazzling small-scale works share with the grand harbors of the 1820s their picturesque subject matter and formal qualities of composition and color. The breathtaking effects of light and color that Turner achieved in watercolor, in fact, informed his work on canvas, resulting in a freer approach to his use of materials and painting technique, as seen in the Frick pictures and in the ancient scenes.
Principal funding for the exhibition is provided by The Honorable and Mrs. W. L. Lyons Brown and Northern Trust.
Additional support is generously provided by The Christian Humann Foundation, The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation, Gilbert and Ildiko Butler, Helen-Mae and Seymour R. Askin, the families of George and Michael Eberstadt in memory of Vera and Walter Eberstadt, Francis Finlay, the Malcolm Hewitt Wiener Foundation, the Christian Keesee Charitable Trust, David and Julie Tobey, The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, Mrs. C. Sidamon-Eristoff, and the Robert Lehman Foundation.
The exhibition catalogue is underwritten by a gift from an anonymous donor in memory of Charles Ryskamp.
The exhibition is also supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.