A curmudgeon whom even close associates described as “a mean-looking little man,” Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) used remorseless observation to move painting beyond fusty allegory and ponderous historical narrative. The Englishman’s major breakthroughs are foreshadowed in an 1812 scene of a snowstorm slashed by dramatic shafts of light and obscuring swipes of black, through which an orange sun burns like a jack-o’-lantern. This search for the sublime—a popular theme of the day—became less melodramatic and more intrinsic to Turner’s vision in an 1828 view of a lake, in which white crusts of pigment form ripples, gray daubs create clouds, and the butt end of a brush traces umber branches amid ocher leaves. Like his sometime rival John Constable, Turner was forging an inseparable bond between his imagery and the physicality of his materials. Although he made detours into cumbersome history painting (an 1824 scene of the Battle of Trafalgar is stagy and leaden), Turner at his best stripped painting to its essentials. In 1834, he and thousands of other horrified Londoners witnessed the nighttime destruction of the Houses of Parliament, and his swift watercolors of the conflagration remain marvels of near abstraction. These nine-by-13-inch compositions are reportage from an ethereal realm—the dark towers and peaked roofs of England’s government edifice rimed with red and surrounded by barely moored collisions of blue and yellow. In a larger oil version, the rampaging flames turn Westminster Bridge bone-white and the sky a roiling lavender. Although a critic complained that such bright illumination was over-imaginative, Turner was faithfully recording a phenomenon that modern urban viewers well understand—light pollution. The artist’s work was also attacked for its sketchiness, but where weekend painters may leave a canvas unarticulated because they lack the skill and discipline to convey a scene, Turner’s spareness is of a piece with his content. His fleeting watercolor flourishes depicting a harpooned whale capture the way that a sudden, violent event can leave a vivid palimpsest in the mind. It’s no surprise that this “uncouth” visionary became the namesake for the coveted prize that young British artists strive for in our own day.

Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10 a.m. Starts: July 1. Continues through Sept. 21, 2008