Mystic Seaport Museum is more than a collection of figureheads and scrimshaw. And while maritime-related material will always be central to the institution’s exhibitions, Nicholas Bell, senior vice president for curatorial affairs, is stretching the envelope just a tad. For J.M.W. Turner: Watercolors from Tate (Oct. 5-Feb. 23 in the Thompson Exhibition Building) is the kind of show those who don’t know a spinnaker from a jib will head out to see.

As the only North American venue for the show, Mystic Seaport Museum continues its efforts to attract repeat visitors, as well as folks who may have felt that a living museum such as this — its biggest exhibits are the historic vessels and village recreated from authentic 19th-century buildings — wasn’t their idea of a cultural destination. “Our ambition is twofold,” Bell says. “To create opportunities for extraordinary visitor experiences that hinge on access to great history, science and art, and also, to fulfill our potential as an all-season venue, as worthy of your attention in winter as summer. It’s not an accident that Turner will run from October through February — it’s part of our goal to reclassify how our public understands the opportunity to visit Mystic Seaport Museum.”

While Turner is perhaps best known in the U.S. for his powerfully atmospheric oil paintings (such as Stormy Sea Breaking on a Shore at the Yale Center for British Art), the British artist was a master of watercolor, a medium he pursued all his life. Drawn entirely from the Turner Bequest (a treasure trove the artist donated to Great Britain in 1856), Watercolors from Tate includes dozens of works, from landscapes and seascapes to city views — images that range from carefully captured vistas to loosely rendered compositions that could almost be confused for an abstract Color Field painting by Helen Frankenthaler.

“Among my favorites in the exhibition,” Bell says, “are four watercolors with gouache on thick blue paper showing interiors and the grounds around Petworth House in Sussex. Turner was a frequent guest here in the 1820s and made well over 100 of these quick color sketches. They were not part of a publishing project, or slated for exhibition. They were simply for his own enjoyment, to remember his travels and friends. This is how the private, intimate works that survive in the Turner Bequest bring us into Turner’s humanity, in a way categorically different from the works he publicly exhibited.”

What you’ll see

Nearly 100 works by J.M.W.  Turner, including 92 watercolors, four oil paintings, and one of the British artist’s last sketchbooks.  The earliest work is a romantic scene of a gorge painted in 1791 when Turner was 17; the latest, painted 55 years later and  exhibited at the Royal Academy five years before the artist’s death, is Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavoring to Extricate Themselves (1846).

This article appeared in the October 2019 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get the latest and greatest content from Connecticut Magazine delivered right to your inbox. Got a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com, or contact us on Facebook @connecticutmagazine or Twitter @connecticutmag.