ROSS STERLING TURNER, born in Westport, NY in 1847, is recognized as one of his era’s most influential teachers of watercolor painting, as well as one of its superior painters of landscapes, still lifes and marine scenes, both in the realist and impressionist styles.
His initial career path, following his family’s move to Alexandria, Virginia in 1862, was that of mechanical draftsmanship, and his first job was as a mechanical draftsman at the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C. However, his artistic inclinations soon took him far from the drafting table, and in 1876 he traveled to Europe, where a new world was afoot amongst the rapidly industrializing and politically changing societies there, and where, on that continent, as elsewhere, many schools and colonies were springing up to train aspiring and leading members of a new artistic and cultural world. Americans in particular were flocking to places like Paris, Rome, Florence, Venice, Munich, and London to learn their craft, and to be inspired by those who had come before them. Turner first went to Paris, then moved on to Munich, where he became a student at the prestigious Munich Academy, which emphasized a thick, painterly style marked by dark tones and vigorous brush strokes (The Munich Style, as it came to be known). While there he received tutelage from the German realist painter William Liebl (who would later gain fame for his painting Three Women in a Church) and met fellow Americans Frank Duveneck (a Cincinnati, Ohio based artist and teacher whose work Turner admired and whose students were known as Duveneck’s Boys) and William Merritt Chase (considered by many to be one of the most influential American artists working at the end of the 19th century who painted en plein air). He also established a close friendship with Constantin Bolonachi, a Greek painter whose marine subject matter would later have a profound effect on Turner’s work. About 1879, Turner traveled to Rome, Florence, and Venice (where he became known as one of Duveneck’s Boys) to study the Old Masters, and it was here in Italy that he began a close examination of the effects of light and color on his work. He returned to America in 1883, settling in Boston and entering the intimate circle of artist Childe Hassam (one of America’s most noted Impressionist painters of this period) and the artistic community arising out of poet/painter Celia Thaxter’s art colony at Appledore Island off the coast of New Hampshire, where he continued to reflect upon the effects of light and color while concentrating on painting the colony’s famous gardens, an endeavor for which he employed short, quick, colorful strokes similar to the style of his friend and painting companion Hassam.
In 1885 Turner married Louise Blaney (artist Dwight Blaney’s oldest sister) and moved to Salem, but maintained a Boston studio for private instruction. Teaching and writing came to form a core component of his career from this point forward, with his securing teaching positions at both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s architecture department (1884–85, 1886–1914) and at the Massachusetts Normal Art School (1909–). He was the author of several books, including On the Use of Watercolors for Beginners (1886) and Art for the Eye-School Room Decoration (1897). He also illustrated books for the publisher Houghton Mifflin and Co. Unbeknownst to many, Turner was an accomplished musician, playing cello at his church in Salem, Massachusetts and at the Salem Club, one of many organizations in his hometown of which he was an active member.
Turner was constantly on the lookout for new subject matter. This, as well as his love of the sea and passion for painting en plein air – especially using watercolors – took him to many seaborne locales, such as Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, but he forged a particularly special relationship with the island of Bermuda, which he first visited in 1889, and which he repeatedly frequented for a period of nearly 20 years. His watercolor and gouache painting Fairylands, Bermuda (ca. 1890) is recognized as one of his finest efforts. A review of the painting in the Boston Journal (from an exhibition at the Doll and Richards Gallery in 1892) described it as having been ‘executed with the delicate and just perception of color, the ease and crispness of touch, and the subdued brilliancy characteristic of Mr. Turner’s best watercolor work.’ Jonathan Land Evans, in his reference book, Bermuda in Painted Representation, called the painting ‘perhaps the late-Victorian apogee of Bermuda art.’ Another work from this period singled out by Evans for special distinction is the simply titled Bermuda (ca. 1892), of which Evans notes: ‘In works such as these, Bermuda’s unique and gracious appeal shines forth with a gentle radiance that has perhaps never been surpassed.’ Other Bermudian works of import include three offerings from 1908: The White Way, Bermuda; Hamilton, Bermuda; and a work entitled The Lane, Bermuda, which was included in the ‘Annual Exhibition of Paintings by Prominent Artists’ at the Poland Spring Art Gallery in South Poland, Maine, that year.
Over the course of his career Turner held memberships in numerous art associations, including the New York Watercolor Club, the American Watercolor Society (New York City), the Boston Watercolor Club, and the Copley Society of Artists (Boston). His work was showcased and exhibited at a wide variety of venues, including the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the National Academy of Design (New York City), the Boston Art Club, Harcourt Studios (Boston), the Doll and Richards Gallery (Boston; annually), the Art Institute of Chicago, the Peabody Museum (Salem), the Pan-American Exposition (Buffalo; medal awarded, 1901), and the American Watercolor Society (prize awarded, 1908).
Turner died in 1915 in Nassau, the Bahamas, where he had gone for health reasons. A memorial exhibition was held for him at the Guild for Boston Artists that same year. Today, his work is represented in many public and private collections, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Public Library, the Fogg Museum at Harvard University, the National Museum of American Art, the Worcester Museum of Art, the Peabody Museum of Salem, and the Denver Art Museum. In recent years, his work has been included in several major traveling museum exhibitions, most prominently The Bostonians: Painters of an Elegant Age, 1870–1930 (1987) and Awash in Color; Homer, Sargent, and the Great American Watercolor (1993).
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