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Illuminating the life of an artist whose subject was light itself

J.M.W. Turner: `A Wonderful Range of Mind,' by John Gage. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 262 pp. $39.95 Turner in the South: Rome, Naples, Florence, by Cecilia Powell. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 216 pp. $35.

The painter Turner was still helping out in his father's barbershop when he first exhibited at London's Royal Academy in 1790. He was 15. His long career in oil, watercolor, and engraving, and some 19,000 drawings, made him one of the greats of British art history.

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John Gage's book, ``J.M.W. Turner, `A Wonderful Range of Mind,''' is a well illustrated life and work. We think of Turner as the artist whose subject became light itself. He was long considered a forerunner of the Impressionists, but Gage is at pains to place Turner in a much broader framework: the hardworking Romantic; the sketching traveler; the student of history; the admirer and aspiring rival of the Old Masters; the lover and user and writer of poetry and a man welcoming technology, with its novel photography and steam engines; the student of topography and perspective, transfixed in his maturity by color and light.

In Turner's day, it was not a new idea to view the world as made up of the triangle, circle, cube, or cone. Architecture illustrated that. The color theories of the Royal Academy taught him aerial perspective, and he illustrated Newton's notions about color with the rainbow. Color's interaction with light and darkness, however, was what was most important to Turner, who was a great admirer of Rembrandt. Also, it seems that Turner thought that if you didn't see primary colors everywhere, ``Heaven help you.''

In the days of Keats, Shelley, Byron, and Coleridge, Turner was a poet, too. Not as great a poet as an artist, he nevertheless found poetry a natural outlet and was deeply interested in the relationship of poetry to the picture. The painter was confined to the moment; in poetry time went by, figures moved, suns rose and set. But he felt that the picture could be more accurate in recording the subject, and that even descriptive poetry had to be careful. He shrewdly compromised when he exhibited: He gave his pictures captions made up of poetry. If, when working in his sketchbook, his quick sketch failed him, he resorted to writing. This is how he saw the tarantella danced in Naples in 1819: ``Girl dancing to the Tabor or Tamborine. One plays, two dance face to face. If two women - a lewd dance and great gesticulation; when the men dance with the women a great coyness on his part till she can catch him idle and toss him up or out of time by her hip: Then the laugh is against him by the crowd....''

Gage shows us Turner's enormous range: landscapes, portraits of great houses, castles and bridges, seascapes, shipwrecks, avalanches, on to the Battle of Trafalgar and Roman and Greek mythology, illustrating his understanding of history.

If the great artist was not a great poet, he was certainly a great traveler. Grand Tours ended at that great magnet for the Romantic - Italy. In her book ``Turner in the South: Rome, Naples, Florence,'' Cecilia Powell studies the artist on his richest trip and his most glorious moments. Italy was too big for the walking tour so popular with early tourists, but often travelers would (and could) walk alongside the slow-moving carriage. Thirty miles a day was average before they arrived at the often flea-bitten hostel. Lots to complain about, but never that they had not seen the country. Italy, ``famous in history,'' as Joseph Addison said in 1705, with its nature, music, painting, sculpture, and architecture, was for Turner a coming home to art, to so much that meant so much.

Cecilia Powell enables us to understand that Turner's intellect was the equal of the brightest of his contemporaries and that he was more interested in producing pictures that were not just ``of'' a subject but ``about'' a subject.

She says, ``But Turner rose to the challenge of Italy. He tackled the most crucial question of all, the one that constantly occupied people's thoughts, the relationship between the ancient and the modern worlds ... . [T]he great figures of the past have their heyday and their downfall, while the humbly born Italians of the present day carelessly enjoy their unparalleled heritage. ... [T]hey have merely inherited `the garden of the world.''' John Ruskin, that busy art critic of the 19th century, most admired Turner when he was ``true to nature,'' to what Ruskin felt to be the true spirit of Italy.

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With these two books, we have intense, scholarly light on the painter of light. In a different time and place, the American painter Charles Sheeler has said, ``Light is the great designer.''

Gene Langley is a former Monitor staff artist.

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