Mystic Seaport, a Connecticut museum village interpreting 19th-century marine trades, is an unlikely cold-weather destination, but this winter is an exception. The seaport, about 135 miles east of New York City, near the Rhode Island border, is the only U.S. venue for an art exhibition with true drawing power: “J.M.W. Turner: Watercolors from Tate.” The show’s last day is Sunday, Feb. 23.
Born the son of a London barber in 1775, Joseph Mallord William Turner did much to put British painting on the map. Best-known today for his “sea pieces” — scenes with sailing ships — he astounded the public and critics of his time with depictions of the burning of Parliament (now in Philadelphia and Cleveland) and the story of Dido and Aeneas (now in London’s National Gallery), infused with drama and suffused with bold colors.
An eccentric who embodied the Romantic spirit of the age, he and his introverted contemporary John Constable are rare examples of English artists who influenced French painters, from Delacroix to the Barbizon School and the Impressionists. At his death in 1851, Turner bequeathed his artistic holdings — some 30,000 works on paper, 300 oil paintings and 280 sketchbooks — to the nation.
Before turning to oil painting in his early 20s, Turner was a fairly conventional, quite unromantic watercolorist, specializing in what were called topographic views: outdoor scenes with architecture painted in relatively strict perspective, often commissioned by owners of country estates. England developed something of a national specialty in watercolor during Turner’s lifetime, to which he contributed.
He continued to paint in the medium throughout his life, both to capture picturesque and sublime settings in Great Britain and on the continent — sojourning in Switzerland and Italy, he became a supreme painter of the Alps and Venice — and to notate his rough, initial impressions of scenes he might later paint in oil at larger scale.
These gestural, semi-abstract compositions of colored washes on paper came to be called “color beginnings.” That they were done nearly 200 years ago is mind-boggling.
Several of these breathtaking and fragile works, which were not exhibited during Turner’s lifetime, are on view at the end of the exhibition (to the right as one enters). But Tate curator David Blayney Brown sought to give a balanced and comprehensive picture of Turner’s watercolor production. The 97 works in the show, including a few oils, cover the key stages and themes of his career, with many outstanding examples that will not return to the States anytime soon.
In addition to Mystic Seaport, where several historic vessels — including the sole surviving wooden whaleship, the Charles W. Morgan — are docked, the area’s attractions include Mystic Aquarium, the charming village of Mystic itself and two of the country’s largest casinos: Mohegan Sun in Uncasville and Foxwoods in Ledyard, also home to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum.
On the way to or from Mystic, by car or Amtrak, plan to stop in New Haven at the Yale Center for British Art, designed by Louis Kahn and paid for by Paul Mellon as a showcase for his exceptional personal collection. In the room dedicated to Turner is the oil painting “Staffa, Fingal’s Cave” of 1831-32, in the bold, proto-Impressionist style of his railroad piece in the London National Gallery, “Rain, Steam and Speed,” among the most remarkable of all British paintings.
The special exhibition “Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts and Crafts Movement” will open on Feb. 13 at the Yale Center for British Art.
Across Chapel Street is the Yale University Art Gallery, also designed by Kahn, one of the richest university collections in the U.S. On view through June 21 is “Place, Nations, Generations, Beings: 200 Years of Indigenous North American Art.”
Admission to both Yale museums is free. Conveniently, one of New Haven’s most elegant restaurants, Union League Cafe, is located a short walk away.
J.M.W. Turner: Watercolors from Tate
Through Feb. 23
Mystic Seaport Museum
5 Greenmanville Ave., Mystic, Connecticut
Open daily, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Admission: $28.95 adults, $26.95 seniors, $24.95 ages 13-17, $18.95 ages 3-12
On Thursday, Feb. 6, the museum will be open from 5 to 8 p.m. for “Turner After Hours,” with a reduced ticket price of $15.