Writing the gallery label for a painting can sometimes feel like an art form in itself, a kind of circumscribed descriptive poetry not unrelated to haiku. How, in fewer than 100 words, do you capture the essence of an object, explain its subject and style, tell its story? Of course, no label—however carefully crafted, whether 100 words long or 1,000—can really accomplish all of this, so curators usually set themselves a more modest goal: to give the visitor a jumping-off point for his or her own exploration of the work at hand. The label can provide a friendly introduction, but the visitor’s personal acquaintance with an object is formed through close looking.
When Scott Schaefer, senior curator of paintings, asked me whether I’d like to collaborate on a label for J.M.W. Turner’s Modern Rome—Campo Vaccino, which goes on view Tuesday, my response was an immediate and emphatic “Yes!” The painting is a masterpiece. It belongs to a small group of works, most of them still in England, that give us 19th-century Britain’s greatest painter at the peak of his powers.
A master of light and color, Turner occupies a pivotal position in the history of art. His extraordinarily free brushwork and high-keyed palette redefined landscape painting, to the mingled shock and delight of his Victorian public. Modern Rome—Campo Vaccino is a luminous, even iridescent, picture. It exemplifies both the artist’s skill at topographical description and his late visionary style. The picture’s extraordinary state of conservation—it is unlined and seems never to have undergone restoration—means that it comes down to us as if fresh from Turner’s brush. The painting is undoubtedly one of the Museum’s most spectacular acquisitions in recent years. So the task of writing a label was at once thrilling and slightly daunting: where, after all, to begin?
Should we discuss Turner’s love affair with Rome, long a mecca for artists, which he visited first in 1819 and again in 1828–1829, and from which he drew inspiration throughout his career?
Should we address Turner’s revolutionary chromatic scheme, the brilliant whites and cadmium yellows that led one sarcastic critic to diagnose him with “yellow fever”?
Should we enumerate all the ancient monuments (from right to left: the Temples of Vespasian and Saturn, the Colosseum, the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, and the Arch of Septimius Severus) and Baroque churches (from left to right: Santi Luca e Martina, San Lorenzo in Miranda, and Santa Francesca Romana) represented in the picture?
Should we describe Turner’s habit of rapidly reworking canvases like this one before an awestruck audience on the “varnishing day” that preceded the opening of annual exhibitions at the Royal Academy?
Should we include the few lines from Byron’s poem Childe Harold that accompanied the painting upon its first exhibition in 1839? Or discuss the pendant work, Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus, The Triumphal Bridge and Palace of the Caesars Restored, which originally hung beside it? For that matter, should we attempt to explain Turner’s often lengthy, orthographically eccentric titles?
Should we mention Turner’s critical ally, John Ruskin, who described him as the genius of his generation, a man who had risen “past clearness to become dark with excess of light”?
Should we point out that, painted from memory a decade after Turner’s final visit to Rome, the picture conforms to the definition of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility” posited by the painter’s fellow Romantic William Wordsworth?
Should we outline the painting’s provenance—its sale by the painter to his friend and patron Hugh Munro of Novar, its subsequent purchase by the Fifth Earl of Rosebery, its descent through the Rothschild family?
Should we talk about the picture’s neo-Rococo frame, chosen by the artist himself?
There were many questions, but one thing was certain: 99 words wouldn’t cut it. Unless, of course, we were willing to take a more radical approach and write an actual haiku—
the city a seashell
goats among the ruins
—or something along those lines.
Fortunately, our label designer, Irma Ramirez, came to the rescue with an alternate format that allowed us space for 200 words. Armed with this extra room, I wrote a draft. Label composition is, of necessity, an exercise in omission, and I am not (as you’ve probably realized by now) a naturally succinct writer. I relinquished Wordsworth and Ruskin, but the text still hovered around 300 words. Scott, a more gifted (and ruthless) streamliner than I, eliminated the list of Roman monuments and cut out my digression about Claude Lorrain, adding in a line about the picture’s condition and frame. Gone were varnishing day and “yellow fever,” Rothko and the Rothschilds, but the resulting draft still squeezed in the most important information—what we felt a first-time viewer might want to know—and even indulged in the occasional descriptive flourish.
Clarified and condensed by Maite Alvarez (project specialist and didactic materials maven in the Museum’s Education Department), spiffed up by Chris Keledjian (heroic editor of all our collection labels at the Center), the text was soon ready to be laid out, printed, and hung beside the painting in the West Pavilion, where we hope it will be useful, though I secretly imagine it may go unread, as visitors lose themselves, enraptured by the painting itself.
Modern Rome–Campo Vaccino
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Oil on canvas
Ten years after his final journey to Rome, Turner envisioned the Eternal City through a veil of memory. Baroque churches and ancient monuments in and around the Roman Forum seem to dissolve in iridescent light shed by a moon rising at left and a sun setting behind the Capitoline Hill at right. Amidst these splendors, the city’s inhabitants carry on with their daily activities. The picture’s nacreous palette and shimmering light effects exemplify Turner at his
When first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1839 with its pendant, Ancient Rome; Agrippina
Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus, the painting was accompanied by a modified quotation from Lord Byron’s masterpiece, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1818): “The moon is up, and yet it is not night, / The
sun as yet divides the day with her.” Like the poem, Turner’s painting evokes the enduring sublimity of Rome, which had been for artists throughout history less a place in the real world than one in the imagination.
The painting is in a remarkable state of preservation and remains untouched since it left Turner’s hands. The frame is that chosen by the artist.