Seemingly ahead of his time, J.M.W. Turner (1775 -1851) was in fact very much of his times—times that, like the painter, kept leaping ahead via feats of imagination and technology. In Turner (Penguin Press, $35), her exhaustive biography of the prodigious British artist, Franny Moyle, whose previous subjects include Constance Wilde and the Pre-Raphaelites, traces the evolution of art and its marketing in the Georgian and Victorian eras from the traditional patronage system to the rise of auctions, galleries, and the independent artist. Turner was very much a model of the latter; proficient in drawings, watercolors, engravings, and oils, he had something to please everyone. His ambition matched his talent, and he was fiercely competitive, lobbying to be admitted to the Royal Academy when he was barely twenty (he was elected at age twenty-six) and identifying the strong points in rivals—then beating them at their own game. While Turner richly fulfilled the British appetite for scenes affirming the country’s “sense of power, solidity, continuity, and heritage,” he depicted Waterloo not as a national triumph, but as the epic slaughter of 40,000 killed in nine hours. Later, though demand for his realistic landscapes—product of an “encyclopedic” vision and compulsive sketching—remained high, Turner redirected his energies from the accurate depiction of a subject to the artist’s response to what he painted. He applied watercolor techniques to oils, exploring new ideas of truth in art. Critics weren’t ready, finding these works too vague, too bright, and too unfinished. But Turner, defended by the young John Ruskin, pressed on.
In 1845 John Snare bought a Van Dyke portrait; he thought it was by Velázquez and spent the rest of his life proving it, going bankrupt in the process. Was it really by Velázquez? Cumming retraces Snare’s steps and uncovers truths and further mysteries. Her search leads her to Philip IV’s Spain, and her vivid evocation of Velázquez’s court life includes eloquent readings of his paintings. An unabashed admirer, she shows how Velázquez achieved stunning realism with the thinnest coats of paint and no preliminary sketches. As to what compelled Snare’s undying devotion, Cumming can only speculate; no one knows where he’s buried, and the painting was last seen in 1898.
Documenting life in crisp, haunting fractions of a second—the longest she can get it to Hold Still—Sally Mann has photographed everything from birth to death, a range that includes love and parenthood, matters of race, art, horses, and dogs. Her memoir is a rich collage of her own and her family’s photos, news clippings, report cards, suicide and other notes, around which Mann tells stories with a novelist’s sense of pacing and the fine artist’s deft handling of image and tone. She has a special affinity for place, and her landscapes are “moments of visual revelation,” while her portraits are shot through with a terrific empathy. Driven to discover what makes people who they are, she also reveals herself, and you’ll find her much more than “a regular person doggedly making ordinary art.”