‘To Stun the Soul'

J. M. W. Turner at the Met

We do not see light itself, but without it we see nothing at all. People speak of the golden light of Venice, the pale blue of Madrid, or the silver sheen of Cape Cod in September. What they are remembering is atmosphere illumined—the particular range of color in a cityscape or landscape. Light reveals the gift of the world to us and so, from the earliest Greek philosophers through Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius, light has been associated with the divine. When Suger of St. Denis flooded the choir of his abbey church in 1144 with the light of stained glass, he inaugurated what was then known as opus modernum and only later, at first disparagingly, as Gothic.

Shortly before his death, the English Romantic artist J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851) is reported to have said, “The sun is God.” First exhibited in 1906, his luminous late paintings are recognized today as forerunners of modernism. Their dazzling colors and abstract themes appeal to a sensibility reared on Monet, the postimpressionists, Rothko, Pollock, and de Kooning. But these paintings, for all their mysterious appeal, are in fact unfinished works.

What of the whole artist? The magnificent exhibition “J. M. W. Turner,” now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through September 21 (after triumphant visits to Dallas and Washington, D.C.), offers him to us in some 150 works—half watercolors, half oils—86 of which are on loan from the...

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About the Author


Leo J. O’Donovan, SJ, a frequent contributor to Commonweal, is president emeritus of Georgetown University.