Turner and the Sublime

MNBAQ’s Exhibition Exploring Light and Darkness

Although scheduled to open in October 2020, the Turner and the Sublime exhibition at Quebec City‘s Musée national des beaux-arts (MNBAQ) opened on February 10th and will last until May 2nd, 2021. In collaboration with Tate (London) from the Turner Bequest, this major exhibition hosts 75 paintings and a multitude of watercolours and other works on paper. 

The collection of works on display at MNBAQ are situated in the Pierre Lassonde Pavilion, with walls painted black where the only light shines on the paintings as if they are illuminating the space. Along with three immersive video installations, this adaptation of Turner’s work has uniquely incorporated the artist’s style of capturing light and darkness.

Photo by Marie-Laurence Houde

J.M.W. Turner is known as one of the–if not, the–greatest landscapists of the Romantic era. He experimented with light and colour, and worked extensively on adapting the dramatic effect of watercolour painting to oil paintings to be able to preserve and display his work over longer periods of time. By using some of his own techniques and those adopted by other painters, Turner was able to increase the chiaroscuro effect of the paints and created a wider range of light and dark hues than ever before possible with oil paints (Chamot; MacEvoy). 

What is very unique about Turner’s exhibitions is the rarity of the paintings, particularly, his watercolours. Turner would use watercolour in his sketchbooks when touring around Europe and created some 300 000 works, only 1800 being finished. As watercolour has a tendency to fade over time, very tedious measures are being taken to make sure the colour and quality of the paintings are preserved. Turner’s paintings are only exposed for a couple of months at a time, only to be shut-out in a completely darkened and temperature-controlled room for years before the next showing (Nadeau; MacEvory). 

Photo by Marie-Laurence Houde

What made this exhibition possible was a painting called Scene in Derbyshire (1827) that had been gifted to the museum in 1959 from Maurice Duplessis’ estate. The painting is placed near the middle of the exhibition at MNBAQ paired with a brief summary of the history related to this particular work. The painting is a snapshot of the Derwent Valley in Derbyshire, seen from a place called the Heights of Abraham. This name may sound familiar to some Quebecers, as this location was indeed named in honour of General James Wolfe who died during the infamous battle on the Plains of Abraham leading to British conquest in 1759. 

Scene in Derbyshire, Photo by Marie-Laurence Houde

MNBAQ’s Turner and the Sublime exhibition is one to see. The entrancing atmosphere captures the essence of Turner’s work and the meaning of the sublime: a state of elevation that ascends towards both physical and metaphorical heights bringing transcendence (Monks). Turner uses his painterly skills to materialize his vision of “the gloomy deep.” Much of his landscape work revolves around questioning what lies below the water, before the horizon, and below the paint (Monks). The darkened atmosphere of the exhibit’s room enhances this dramatic and gloomy feeling, making the observer wonder what will come next around every corner. 


Butlin, Martin R.F. and Chamot, Mary. “J.M.W. Turner”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 26 Jan. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/J-M-W-Turner. Accessed 6 March 2021.

MacEvoy, Bruce. ‘Joseph Mallord William Turner’. Watercolour Artists, 2015, https://www.handprint.com/HP/WCL/artist05.html.

MNBAQ. ‘Turner and the Sublime Canadian Exclusive in Québec City’. Musée National Des Beaux-Arts Du Québec (MNBAQ), http://www.mnbaq.org/en/exhibition/turner-and-the-sublime-1283. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.

Monks, Sarah. ‘“Suffer a Sea-Change”: Turner, Painting, Drowning’. The Art of the Sublime, 2012. Open WorldCat, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/the-sublime.

Nadeau, Shirley. ‘“Turner and the Sublime” Finally Arrives at the MNBAQ’. QCNA EN, 16 Feb. 2021, https://qcna.qc.ca/news/turner-and-the-sublime-finally-arrives-at-the-mnbaq.

By Isabelle Devi Poirier


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