J. M. W. Turner

Special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through September 21.

The meaning of the word sublime has faded over time. Now it’s just a generic expression of greatness—a gorgeous dress, a delicious meal, a beautiful evening, all can be sublime—but sublime once held deeper significance. Only something vast and breathtaking, perhaps even frightening, could be sublime. Sublime described something literally beyond compare. It was a word to describe the wonders of nature: an immense chasm, a crashing wave, the boundless expanse of space.

I love that old meaning. It’s easy to forget, easy to abuse the word, like using awesome when you don’t feel anything like reverence, but I think we lost something when we pulled such beautifully deferential words down to our own level. When you look at the paintings of J. M. W. Turner, for example, you need sublime, in its original sense, because that’s what the artist is trying to convey, the overwhelming power and grandeur of the natural world: the sublime—there’s no better way to express it.

Turner’s goal as a painter was to elevate landscapes, a lesser genre of the first half of the nineteenth century, to the exalted status of history paintings. His earlier works won widespread contemporary admiration, though to my eyes, the detail work sometimes seems a bit fussy. As Turner matured, however, he became more radical and abstract, painting snowstorms and fires and rough seas with thick, swirling swaths of oil paint, often in a riot of color. British critics demurred—surely such works were the “fruits of a diseased eye and a reckless hand” (a great line, however much I might disagree with the sentiment)—but to modern eyes, those later paintings are stunning precursors to the familiar style of the Impressionists.

Works such as Snow Storm and The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons are vividly dynamic and evocative, seemingly ready to swallow you up if you step too close, but though both depict real events that Turner witnessed, neither aspires to be a straightforward likeness of the scene. To contemporary critics, the paintings were messy and too extreme in their use of light and shadow, to which Turner once replied, “I did not paint it to be understood, but I wished to show what such a scene was like.” It’s the perfect rejoinder: Turner’s paintings don’t show you what the sublime looks like; they show you what it feels like, and it feels overpowering, enthralling, awesome.