In 1840, to witness the full force of nature’s tumult and beauty, the 65-year-old British painter Joseph Mallord William Turner had sailors lash him to a boat’s mast for four hours during a tempest. “I did not expect to escape,” Turner said, “but I felt bound to record it if I did.” Turner’s record is the momentous Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842)—a vertiginous whirlwind of streaking blacks, burnished ochers, glinting silvers, and pewter grays, with sensuous layers of opacity and translucence engulfing the boat, its bright white sail clawed nearly to oblivion. John Ruskin called the oil painting “one of the very grandest statements of sea-motion, mist, and light that has ever been put on canvas, even by Turner.”
Snow Storm is among approximately 75 oils, watercolors, and sketches in “J. M. W. Turner: Quest for the Sublime,” a formidable gathering of violent yet serene landscapes and seascapes, battle scenes and disasters—historical, mythological, and religious—by the visionary artist who dissolved the world into emotion and light. Organized by David Blayney Brown at Tate Britain, the show makes its only U.S. appearance at Nashville’s Frist Art Museum.