The Art of Traveling Light

Two centuries ago, prints based on J.M.W. Turner’s watercolors of famous destinations—the Rialto Bridge in Venice, the Aysgarth Force waterfalls in England, Rossyln Castle in Scotland—became gateways to the world for armchair travelers. In Journey into Light: Travels With J.M.W. Turner, modern explorers will also enjoy the 32 works that represent a lifetime of Turner’s adventures, often on foot, pencil and sketchbook in hand.

Here, Anna Stein, assistant curator of works on paper, talks about his legacy, his critics, and her curiosity about his shoes.

Q: By the time J.M.W. Turner died in 1851, he was Britain’s most well-known artist, even though he lived his final years in what one writer called “eccentric obscurity.” Why do you think his legacy endures? 

A: The “eccentric obscurity” can be overplayed: he had moved in with his girlfriend in Chelsea, where he used her last name while his old house and gallery fell into neglect. He was always a difficult personality, so if you take all of this and pit it against Victorian sensibilities, you can see how this myth of the old eccentric rotting away might have blown up. His legacy lived on partially through his prints, which continued to be reissued for decades after his death. Plus, he bequeathed his estate to Britain under specific provisions,  so his paintings have always been on view.

The prominent critic John Ruskin had written of Turner as the century’s greatest artistic visionary in his influential book Modern Painters. Ruskin led the way for a new generation of Turner fans who saw his work as speaking to the values of modernity. Later, Turner’s style spoke to many of the values of 20th-century Modernism, so his work remained relevant to artists for decades further. This is why viewers today usually prefer his late and nearly abstract works.

Q: Turner also had a lot of critics. What did they find so irritating or disdainful about him?

A: He was criticized for exaggerating scenes and abandoning the factual truth of his landscapes. Conservative art critics found his paintings confusing and blotchy: comparing his oil paintings, especially later works, to everything from soapsuds to lobster salad became almost a game.

He also had a reputation for rudeness, and he was a terrible public speaker despite holding on to the position of professor of perspective at the Royal Academy for nearly 30 years.

Q: What’s something you discovered that even diehard Turner fans might not know? 

A: A diehard fan would know this, but I liked learning that he was an avid fisherman. I think of that every time I see some tiny fishermen in the foreground of one of his watercolors —and they show up a few times in the show! 

Q: How did the IMA come to have such extensive holdings of Turner’s works on paper?

A: A passionate Turner collector and attorney named Kurt Pantzer was a generous supporter of the IMA. He moved his Turner collection here in 1972, but even before that, he worked for decades to build the Museum’s collection.

Many of the watercolors that Pantzer collected were available because they had originally been made for and handed over to publishers (who later sold them to collectors), unlike the other drawings that stayed in Turner’s personal collection and ended up at the Tate Britain in London. 

Q: Which piece in this exhibition do you find the most interesting? 

A: I have a soft spot for The Pyramids at Gizeh. It comes out of this moment when the Americans and British were becoming fascinated with the increasingly accessible Middle East. Books and illustrations on it were a medley of Arabian Nights romance, semi-scientific exploration, and a faith-based interest in the land of the Bible all mixed together under colonialism. Turner never went to Egypt, but publishers knew his illustrations would increase sales on a popular subject. 

Q: If you could have J.M.W. Turner over for dinner, what three things would you want to ask him?

A: Turner was notoriously rude and misogynistic (although he was great at networking when he needed to be), so I’m not sure how far we’d make it in conversation. I have to admit one thing that crosses my mind when I read about the hundreds of miles that he walked across mountains and valleys for travel sketches: what kind of shoes was he wearing?

Q: What's one thing you hope visitors to the exhibition will remember? 

A: This show is really about Turner’s relationship with traveling for publishing projects. Most of all, I want to show how a huge part of his fame and fortune actually came from hustling to create watercolors that could be published for this big business of selling travel prints and books to British armchair tourists. His success came from the perfect storm of talent, hard work, and the culture of his generation.