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19th century masters take center stage in Fort Worth

By Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 reporter

Dallas, TX – Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 reporter: The shimmering, blue, yellow and green water reflects the sometimes bright, occasionally diffused sunlight that is the signature characteristic in many of Englishman J.M.W. Turner's Venetian paintings. The effect can be as striking as American Sanford Gifford's sun-drenched mountains and valleys of upstate New York.

Patti Junker, Curator of Painting and Sculpture, Amon Carter Museum: And the point is to take your breath away. That's what both painters have in common.

Zeeble: Patti Junker, the Amon Carter Museum's Curator of Painting and Sculpture, stands in front of Gifford's "The Wilderness," from 1860. It's a fictitious, softy-lit mountain in front of a serene, sharply focused lake, and a Native American woman. The romantic scene was assembled from Gifford's trips through the Catskills, New England and Nova Scotia. He'd already seen Turner's paintings in Europe. The influence never left him. Just a few years earlier, while in Italy, he painted a scene Turner had depicted years earlier, of Lake Nemi.

Junker: The ethereal effects were so striking; this was called Turner to the point of plagiarism, which it's not. But that was the effect it had.

Zeeble: Half of Gifford's canvas is hazy sun and sky, as if photographed through cheesecloth. Some critics said the American's paintings looked like photographs, while others noted that, up close, they lacked the detailed finish that was then coming into vogue in the U.S.

Junker: It's not about finish with him. That, from a distance, you sort of let your mind absorb these over time at some distance, and you allow the scene to coalesce into a whole. That's what Gifford learned from Turner.

Zeeble: Nearly two generations before Gifford, J.M.W. Turner had pioneered a revolutionary style rejecting the kind of hard-edged lines that 18th century Italian master Canaletto had become famous for, especially in his Venetian paintings. Turner, who visited Venice three times in his life and was drawn to the romanticism of the famed canal city, painted his Venetian scenes fully aware of those who'd painted it before.

Malcolm Warner, Senior Curator, Kimbell Art Museum: There's a sort of exuberant disregard for factual accuracy in his work.

Zeeble: Malcolm Warner is the Kimbell Art Museum's Senior Curator.

Warner: He doesn't care about every detail in a scene. He's willing to let gestured brush work have a life of its own. There's something modern about that which anticipates impressionist and abstract expressionists of the 20th century.

Zeeble: But in the early to mid 19th century, many critics didn't know what to make of Turner's large, often sketchy scenes. In his Venice oils and watercolors, sunlight, sky and clouds often blend into the horizon, the water, and also into hard objects like boats, buildings, and people.

Warner: It was a choice that he chose to paint in this dissolving atmospheric manner. If you get the mood and atmosphere across, that's the important thing. It's not showing off how well you can match up the details with reality. He was a romantic artist. There was the idea that a painting should communicate feeling and mood, not necessarily fact.

Zeeble: During and after his life, Turner's impact was perhaps greatest on other artists. Today, critics say he's undeservedly less known to the public because he was from England, not the more highly-regarded Italy or France. With the Kimbell's "Turner and Venice" show - its only U.S. stop - art historians say here's another chance to view Turner and his legacy. Sanford Gifford's paintings haven't been assembled for a show in more than 100 years. Almost completely unknown among Hudson River painters, Gifford's masterly landscapes of light and vistas have rarely been seen because most are in private collections. And they were often considered too small for many museums. For KERA 90.1, I'm Bill Zeeble.

"Turner and Venice" runs through May 30th at the Kimbell Art Museum

"Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford Gifford" runs through May 16th at the Amon Carter Museum

Email Bill Zeeble about this story.