Celebrated J.M.W. Turner exhibit comes to Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario

A blockbuster exhibit of later-life art by British art icon J.M.W. Turner – paintings that sparked controversy and hysteria when he first unveiled them – has descended on the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.

Exhibit earned rave reviews, drew near-record crowds in U.K.

J.M.W. Turner's Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis, first exhibited in 1843, is part of the Toronto exhibit. (Tate, London 2015)

A blockbuster exhibit of later-life art by J.M.W. Turner – paintings that sparked controversy and hysteria when he first unveiled them – has descended on the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.

J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free features more than 50 large-scale paintings and watercolours on loan from the Tate Britain, where this exhibition – held last year – became the second-most visited show in the gallery's history.

War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet by Joseph Mallord William Turner. (Tate, London 2015)

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) is renowned as a giant of British art and has been called Britain's most original artist. He painted landscapes and seascapes as well as works based on history and religion. He travelled widely in Europe, even in his later years, in order to re-experience the scenery he wanted to paint.

His later life was a time of great vigour and energy. His mature works, which the exhibition focuses on, became increasingly abstract and experimental as he sought to capture the elusive qualities of light and colour, although some have speculated that his failing eyesight may have also played a role. 

The Angel Standing in the Sun by Joseph Mallord William Turner. ( Tate, London 2015)

Whatever the cause or inspiration, the results are why he's often referred to as the father of impressionism since his paintings influenced the work of the French impressionists.

'Radical innovator'

He was a "radical innovator" who "elevated watercolour to the level of oil painting," Lloyd DeWitt, the AGO's curator of European art, said at a media preview this week. 

"Turner's rare skill is to draw out the emotional impact of a scene like no one before."

Highlights of the show include The Angel Standing in the Sun (first exhibited in 1846) and Snow Storm - Steam Boat off a Harbour's Mouth (first exhibited in 1842).

Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth by Joseph Mallord William Turner. (Tate, London 2015)

To capture the scene in the latter, Turner claimed that he had himself lashed to the mast of a ship for several hours in order to experience a storm at sea firsthand, although some say the story is more legend than fact. 

Tate Britain curator David Blayney Brown points out that Turner's late-life work "was very controversial and attracted hysterical reviews" during his lifetime.

The paintings were compared to lobster salad, soapsuds, whitewash, and beetroot or mustard. 

Peace - Burial at Sea by Joseph Mallord William Turner. (Tate, London 2015)

"That period was an extraordinary renaissance for Turner," Brown told CBC News. 

"He produced some of his very finest work, but also some of his most radical work."

Turner's life on film

Turner's later years were also depicted in British director Mike Leigh's 2014 movie Mr. Turner, starring Timothy Spall as the artist.

The film portrayed him as he developed his mature style. It also depicted his intimate relationship with his widowed landlady who lived by the sea, where Turner travelled to sketch and paint. 

Mr. Turner received four Academy Award nominations and Spall won the best actor award for the role at the Cannes Film Festival.

Brown called the movie "a wonderful evocation of 19th century England" with a "vivid characterization" of Turner.

"I don't think it's accurate in all sorts of details," he noted, "but it probably doesn't have to be because it's creating an overall effect."

The Departure of the Fleet by Joseph Mallord William Turner. ( Tate, London 2015)

J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free opens at the Art Gallery of Ontario on Saturday and runs to Jan. 31, 2016.