J. M. W. Turner's "Juliet and Her Nurse," a Romantic English picture roundly ridiculed when it was painted in 1836, yesterday became the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction when it brought $6.4 million in the New York salesrooms of Sotheby Parke Bernet.

The price ascended at the rate of $1 million a minute as two determined bidders spent six minutes and 40 seconds fighting for the picture. The loser was in London bidding by telephone. The winner -- a gray-haired, stocky man present in the auction room -- would not state his name, but was rumored to be representing an Argentine collector who lives in Buenos Aires.

The old record, $5,544,000, was set in 1970 for a Velazquez portrait. Because auction houses now charge purchasers a 10 percent commission, the buyer of the Turner, who was unidentified, actually spent $7,040,000 for "Juliet and Her Nurse."

The freely painted Turner is a view of dusk in Venice -- what Juliet is doing there so far from Verona has never been explained. It was offered by Flora Whitney Miller of New York. It had been in her family's collection since 1901. Miller is the honorary chairman of Manhattan's Whitney Museum of American Art, an institution that does not collect English pictures. She has said, however, that a portion of the proceeds will go to that museum.

Though Turners of such quality are extremely rare, the price was not foreseen. Sotheby's presale estimate was "in excess of $1 million." Worldwide inflation, the decline of the dollar and the painting's history helped to raise the price.

So, too, did the current state of the New York auction market. Earlier this month, a painting by Vincent van Gogh sold by Henry Ford II fetched $5.2 million at Christie's. So far this year, eleven pictures have sold for more than $1 million each at auction in New York.

The Van Gogh had been painted for his friend, Paul Gauguin. Frederick Edwin Church's "The Icebergs," which set the record for an American painting when it was sold for $2.5 million at Sotheby's last year, was so highly valued in part because it had long been lost. The Turner, too, has a telling history. The great critic John Ruskin wrote the first volume of his famous "Modern Painters" in part in its defense.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, a barber's son, was born in London in 1775. He is generally regarded as England's finest painter, and is frequently described as modern art's first master. In retrospect his works, especially his late ones, seem eerily predictive.

Passages within them -- the fireworks, for instance, that Juliet is watching explode above the Grand Canal -- approach pure abstraction. It is not surprising that "Juliet and Her Nurse" baffled many critics when it was first displayed at London's Royal Academy in 1836.

"It is painful to look upon the affectations of Turner," thundered The Times, "who, although honored with the title of professor of perspective, has set all the laws of that truth-telling science, both lineal and aerial, at defiance . . . in the yellow jaundice called 'Juliet and Her Nurse.'"

The writer for the Literary Gazette was offended by the placement, in the lower right-hand corner, of those two Shakespearean figures: "It was not until after considerable research that we discovered, or thought we discovered (for to the present moment we are not sure of the fact) Juliet and her Nurse perched, like sparrows, on a house-top. . . ."

The most famous, and most vitriolic, of the attacks on Turner's picture was written by the Rev. John Eagles for Blackwood's Magazine. He called the painting "a strange jumble -- 'confusion worse confounded.'"

That review, wrote Ruskin, "raised me to the height of 'black anger' in which I have remained pretty nearly ever since; and having by that time some confidence in my power of words, and -- not merely judgment, but sincere experience -- of the charm of Turner's work, I wrote an answer to Blackwood's. . . ."

"Turner may be mad: I daresay he is, inasmuch as highest genius is allied to madness; but not so stark mad as to profess to paint nature," Ruskin wrote. "He paints from nature, and pretty far from it, too . . . Turner is an exception to all rules . . . In a widely magnificent enthusiasm, he rushes through the ethereal dominions of the world of his own mind -- a place inhabited by the spirit of things. . . . Turner thinks and feels in color; he cannot help doing so . . . Innumerable dogs are baying at the moon; do they think she will bate of her brightness, or abberate from the majesty of her path?"

"Juliet and Her Nurse" is a transitional Turner. In 1799, at 24, he had been elected to the Royal Academy. By 1836, however, his poetic, visionary, cataclysmic pictures, of which the "Juliet" is a fine example, had cost the English master many of his champions.

In the last years of his life, Turner, always a solitary figure, was something of a recluse. He died in 1851, leaving most of his fortune to a home (never built) for "decayed English artists." He also bequeathed 282 oils to the Tate Gallery, and 19,751 watercolors to the British Museum. These bequests, and the fact that he bought up many of his own pictures, help explain the rarity of his work.

Turner had hoped that all his works would be shown "all together" in one gallery, but his relatives, whom he detested, disputed his will and won his money. For a while his epic yet ethereal works were so lightly regarded that the Tate stashed them in the basement (where they were damaged by a flood). As late as the 1960s, a bundle of his watercolors, still wrapped in brown paper, was found in the British Museum, and one of his large canvases, still rolled, was discovered in the National Gallery in London. The staff there had thought it was a tarpaulin.

Earlier this month, however, Sir Charles Glore, a millionaire shoe manufacturer, left $13.7 million to the British government with which to build a Turner gallery next door to the Tate on the Thames Embankment. The prospect of such a tourist attraction opening in London no doubt contributed to yesterday's record price.