He is uncouth but has a wonderful range of mind

With a crowd of family in tow in a sea of bustling fine art tourism, I took in the astounding Joseph Mallord William Turner retrospective at the Met last week, jostling through the headphone-wearers to gaze at a few of the finer works at some small length. Turner was an artist of empire, a prolific careerist who grew up as the son of a barber and wigmaker in London and set his sites on becoming the acknowledged heir to Europe’s great classicists. Yet his toil over a very long career spanned the tail end of the enlightenment, ignited as war swept the western world, and lasted long after, well into the industrial spread of the 19th century. And although Turner aimed for classical landscape fame, his later worked presaged expressionism in their layering of color and homage to light.

What a talent, and what range as well. There are the great historic paintings, of course – the Trafalgar images, The Field of Waterloo, and his near-journalistic work covering the great fire that destroyed the parliamentary campus in London in 1834. There are classical landscapes in strict diagrammatic patterns, and classical scenes. But there were two groups that stood out as favorites. One comprised everyday scenes of life in Turner’s times – times that also inspired the writing of a range of my favorite writers, from Austen and Dickens to the brilliant maritime series of Patrick O’Brian. The other was the later work, painted when Turner’s eyes were failing him, works that critics of the day dismissed as “the fruits of a diseased eye and a reckless hand.”

I stood longest before Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight, exhibited by Turner in 1835 and on loan from the National Gallery, where I’d seen it before. It is a media-sized oil painting of the waterfront at Newcastle, a portrait of every day toil in small boats and small ships. The sky is moonlit, almost like day, and the light and clouds form a sort of visual tunnel toward open water. The ships have that classic Turner lyric of beauty discovered in hull and sail, but it’s no longer the age of Napoleon – or the age of pure sail, either. Coal feeds steamship boilers, ships move under power, and the factories are open. There is work to be done even at midnight. Smoke sends its industrial signal into that brilliant sky, obscuring some masts.

You think: it would be the 1960s before England’s skies grew cleaner again. The coal-powered London fog of Sherlock Holmes was a wisp in Turner’s painting, but it was beginning to swirl. Jane Austen is dead, Charles Dickens had just started his journalistic career, and Wellington was his dotage. Victoria was a princess yet to ascend, Darwin was in the Galapagos, and on these shores, Texas won its independence and Mark Twain was born. I love images like this that blend a “wonderful range of mind” like Turner’s – as famously described by his rival John Constable – with a clear turn of history. Sometimes you can see so much, and come away the better for it.

Highly recommended: J.M.W. Turner, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, through September 21, 2008.