A & E

J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free at the de Young through Sept. 20

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus, exhibited 1839, oil paint on canvas, Tate Britain, accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856. image: © Tate, London 2015

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in collaboration with the Tate Britain and the J. Paul Getty Museum present J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free, the first major survey of the artist’s work during the last 15 years of his life, during which his most popular paintings were created.

During this period, J.M.W. Turner’s examination of the natural world combined with classic religious and historical themes, creating a bold new style that was a preface to Impressionism. Known as “the painter of light,” his dreamlike canvases reduced imagery to shimmering light and intense, sometimes violent color explorations. The fiery sunsets and turbulent seas faded over time since Turner used pigments that weren’t durable in the long term. He was concerned with the immediacy of color more than posterity. The sacred and otherworldly were of greater importance. When painting the play of light on disruptive waves or swirling storm clouds, Turner often left out aspects of traditional representation to make room for turbulent expression.

Painting Set Free brings together 65 significant oils and watercolors representing a wide range of talents, techniques, and materials. Included are some of the masterpieces featured in Mike Leigh’s critically acclaimed film Mr. Turner (Sony Pictures Classics, 2014).

“Turner was arguably the greatest English artist of the 19th century,” said Colin B. Bailey, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “It is an exceptional privilege to share such a significant group of the artist’s paintings and watercolors, important works that come to us from a host of international lenders.”

The exhibition will include some of the artist’s most iconic works, including The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834 (1834–35) and War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet and Peace — Burial at Sea (1842). “Turner’s late paintings, which include many of his best-known images, are both engaging and enigmatic,” said Esther Bell, curator in charge of European paintings at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “These astonishing works influenced generations of artists, from Claude Monet to Cy Twombly.”

A complementary exhibition at the Legion of Honor, Luminous Worlds: British Works on Paper, 1770-1870 (July 11–Nov. 29), features drawings, watercolors and oil sketches by Turner and his contemporaries, including Thomas Gainsborough, John Robert Conzens, William Blake, John Constable, John Martin, and Samuel Palmer, providing the public with a broad scope of British artistic talent over the course of a century.

J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free: M.H. deYoung Museum, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive; through Sept. 20, Tuesday–Sunday 9:30 a.m.–5:15 p.m. (Friday until 8:45 p.m.); $20–$25,, 415-750-3600

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Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in southern California. She can be reached at