Joseph Mallord William Turner’s ambition was as big as the ocean.
So was his talent, as visitors can see for themselves in “Turner & the Sea,” an exhibit of the English artist’s maritime paintings now at Peabody Essex Museum.
The first work they’ll encounter, “Fishermen at Sea,” was also the first painting that Turner exhibited, in 1796.
“He comes out of the box with, in my view, one of the great watery scenes ever,” said Dan Finamore, curator of maritime art and history at PEM. “For a 21-year-old to make a splash with a painting was not unheard of, but was momentous in its way.”
The image of fishermen working by moonlight in big swells displayed the painter’s thorough command of several traditions in maritime art.
By setting the scene off the south coast of England, where the French navy threatened English ships, Turner also gave his painting contemporary relevance.
But Turner also took liberties with the traditions he mastered, generating controversy in the process.
“Fisherman Upon a Lee-Shore in Squally Weather” from 1802 features many of the same elements as “Fishermen at Sea,” but had qualities that bothered some viewers.
“People talked about Turner’s work as being indistinct,” Finamore said. “They really didn’t like the sense of fuzziness that surrounded his very detailed presentation of the boats.”
Turner’s experiments with brushwork, composition and color, many times conducted in watercolor and almost always focusing on the sea, were often later incorporated into finished oil canvases.
These are presented in one gallery, titled “Contested Waters,” as the means by which Turner stayed ahead of his competition.
The most vivid example of his practice is the painting “The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805,” which was commissioned by the Prince of Wales in 1822.
It was meant to complement “Lord Howe’s Action, or the Glorious First of June, 1794,” by Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, a French painter in England.