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A visionary use of light

British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner was devoted to the idea of a central light source at the heart of his canvases.

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Beyond the turbulent seas of many of his maritime paintings, the dramatic storms of his nature pictures, and the crises embodied in his history works, the 19th-century British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner developed a single motif that most impresses on the memory: the Turneresque sun (or sometimes the moon) as the focus of the canvas, radiating brilliantly modulated light and a kind of symbolic illumination over all.

Whether or not Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) actually stated, "The sun is God" near the end of his life is disputed by historians. What is unarguable is his devotion to the idea of the central light source at the heart of the canvas, often shining over water, an idea he is thought to have originally derived from the 17th-century landscape painter Claude Lorrain.

It is this rendering of light and other atmospheric effects such as fog and mist – Turner's "exalting experiences of light and color," as described by art writer Graham Reynolds – that ultimately wows the viewer more than the sound and fury of many of his most dramatic subjects. For example, in "Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight" (1835) (pictured here), the moon bathes the water in mother-of-pearl illumination, creating an uncanny mood that one critic described as "neither night nor day."

Many such canvases of serene beauty are included in "J.M.W. Turner," a major new exhibition of the artist's work at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Yet this is also a show that reveals Turner's verve in executing a dramatic subject.

Paintings such as "Snowstorm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps" (1812), the monumental "The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805" (1823-24), and two versions of the "Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834" (1835) seize attention with charged subject matter – proof of one reason Turner is the most widely recognized painter in the history of British art.

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