Luminance and Brilliance: J.M.W. Turner’s Ports at the Frick

By Phyllis Lam, Contributing Writer

As you pass through corridors of the Frick Collection, it would be impossible to miss the brilliant light shining through the port paintings by Joseph Mallord William Turner. An exhibition dedicated to the British landscape master, “Turner’s Modern and Ancient Ports: Passages through Time,” takes you on a tour of Northern European ports in the 19th century through the lens of the artist.

Regulars at the Frick will remember seeing the two Turner paintings, “The Harbor of Dieppe” and “Cologne, the Arrival of a Packet-Boat: Evening” hung in the West Gallery as part of the permanent collection. In the adjacent Oval Room for this exhibit, the two works are now shown side by side next to the centerpiece, “The Harbor of Brest,” on loan from the Tate in London. This unfinished canvas of the French harbor is believed to be a part of Turner’s series of European ports, as conveyed by its similar composition where a waterway sits between the opposite shores.

Across the three monumental paintings are Turner’s ancient ports recreated from historical narratives in Rome and Carthage. In “Regulus,” strong beams of light blaze through the sky and reflect from the water surface to evoke the scene where the Roman commander Marcus Atilius Regulus was tortured to death, being forced to stare into the sun until he was blinded. More than just an imagination of the past, Turner made a statement in this painting as though it was his rebuttal towards critics who judged his fascination with light. Guided by the gleam, components of his port scenes accentuate into a vantage point that extends far into the horizon. By allowing the white underpaint to shine through the translucent paint on top, he created a mesmerizing effect of light that is iconic in his Romantic seascapes.

Also exhibited are the pocket-sized sketchbooks Turner carried with him in his travels to Northern Europe. In the process of painting “The Harbor of Dieppe,” he meticulously sketched out Hotel d’Anvers and noted important details of the surrounding scene, including the color of clothes worn by local people on the boats or along the shore. His port paintings highlight a significant time in history where travel between England and France expanded in the post-Napoleonic era, also made convenient by the invention of steamboats and road improvements. Like many British artists and writers of his time, Turner visited cities along the English Channel and Continental Europe.

The rest of the exhibition showcases a series of Turner’s watercolor paintings of marine views in England, Germany and France, including the British coastal cities of Brighton and Margate, the Rhine river in Koblenz and Mont St-Michel in Normandy. Many of the watercolors were printed in travel journals at the time, just like photos in travel advertisements today. “Sun-Rise: Whiting Fishing at Margate, for Marine Views” mirrors the light reflected from the sky and the sea, as depicted in his oil port paintings. The other watercolor seascapes; however, are structured in varying compositions and matched by color tones that bring out a unique atmosphere. The overall brightness in “Brighthelmston, Sussex, for Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England,” for instance, powers the motions of the crushing waves. Turner’s mastery of light created vivid scenes that would form lasting impressions for his viewers.

“Turner’s Modern and Ancient Ports: Passages through Time” opened Feb. 23 and will remain on view through May 14. Admission to the Frick Collection is free with your NYU ID.

Email Phyllis Lam at


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