Joseph Mallord William Turner

English painter, now considered one of the most remarkable of 19th-century artists.

Son of a London barber, he drew from childhood and entered the Royal Academy Schools at the age of 14.

At 15, he showed a watercolor in the Academy exhibition, and at 16 he began touring around Britain recording buildings and natural scenery in drawings and watercolors.

In 1796, he showed an oil painting, Fishermen at Sea: a moonlit and stormy scene already marked by his interest in light and in representing man amid nature’s drama. He observed, but he also steeped himself in the art of others, He copied J.R. Cozens’s water-colors and look ideas from Dutch painting and from Richard Wilson and de Loutherbourg, developing his skills and range of expression.

Lock Awe, with a Rainbow (about 1801) shows both his Romantic feeling for special effects of light and atmosphere and a unique delicacy in his use of watercolor and paper.

In 1798, nearly elected an Associate of the Royal Academy; he was found to be younger than the rules allowed; his election followed in 1794 and full membership in 1802. That year he went on the first of several continental tours, this time to France and Switzerland. He studied the Louvre’s art collection, enriched by Napoleon’s looted treasures, and then turned to the Alps. Back home, he worked up sketches into watercolors substantial enough to be exhibited, producing also oil paintings that reflect his enlarged experience. These now included history subjects: the first was The Fifth Plague of Egypt (1800), a Biblical theme (actually the seventh plague) used as the occasion for a dramatic landscape in the style of Poussin, apparent also in some of his pure landscapes of the period.

Another religious subject, Holy Family (1803), involved ‘spoiling a fine landscape by very bad figures’ and led to the suggestion that he should abandon history painting. Such comments may have spurred him on: in the years that followed he studied and imitated the great landscape and history painters of the past, notably Claude whose compositions he adapted and whom he challenged directly in his grandiose Dido building Carthage (1815).

More impressively, he fused nature and history in Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army crossing the Alps (1812): nature’s drama presages the decline and fall of Carthage which Turner associated with France’s defeat by Britain and her allies and also with the transience of power; the theme recurs in his oeuvre, often borne by vortical compositions. The catalogue entry for this one, at the 1812 Academy show, includes lines from his own epic poem, Fallacies of Hope. He used quotations from the same work on later occasions. It reveals both his Romantic spirit, caring more for resonance than precision, and his incomplete education.

His pursuit of nature’s riches continued. From 1809 on he repeatedly stayed at Petworth House in Sussex as the guest of Lord Egremont, a great collector of contemporary art. He drew and painted the house and grounds many times, for his patron and for himself, at times risking incomprehensibility in his attention to effects of light at the expense of form.

He went to Belgium, the Rhineland and Holland for the first time in 1817, to Italy for the first time in 1819. Ever greater familiarity with nature’s many forms and moods called for experiment and refinement in his picturing of them. Commentators began to divide into those who found his work ‘gorgeous’ and those who found it unnatural and empty.

By the late 1820s, Turner was both famous and notorious, and when he gave his landscapes history content, critics and art-lovers were especially likely to lake offence. Ruskin’s admiration was forming at this lime, stimulated by what he saw as examples of unique truth to nature and interpreted as moral statements for modern times, but he too thought some of Turner’s History paintings ‘nonsense’.

Turner worked ceaselessly. He never married but had relationships with women whom he kept from sight. His social life was slight; his behavior was inelegant even when friendly.

Fellow artists were in awe of him and reported on his way of transforming exhibited works on the touching-up days allowed by the Academy to associates and members: he heightened color and light effects, diminishing the impact of others’ work nearby and demonstrating art as a virtuoso performance. He did book illustrations and series of views for topographical hooks, making water-colors which others turned into engravings.

His Liber Studiorum, 71 engraved images demonstrating his range, was issued in parts during 1807-19 in imitation of Claude’s Liber Veritatis; Sequels, engraved by himself, were produced later but never published. He exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy and frequently in other galleries; he also had a private gallery as part of, or adjacent to, his successive homes in Central London where his work could be seen and for some years held annual exhibitions there.

The roles of fancy and fact are not easily distinguished in his art, and there were those who came to think that he was close to madness. Among the paintings he showed in public places in and after 1835 -when he was about 60 years of age and more – are some of his most surprising inventions, their themes pointing to an obsession with apocalyptic extremes and death. The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons (two different paintings, 1835), and Kedmen heaving in Coals by Night (1835) portray events and activities he witnessed but accord them supernatural force.

Slayers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying (1840) combines elements from his seascapes with echoes of such dire visions as the damned in a Last Judgment or the death of Icarus with, as Thackeray wrote, ‘a horrible sea of emerald and purple’, ‘Is the picture sublime or ridiculous?’ he asked. Ruskin, who owned it, insisted on its sublimity and thought it Turner’s master piece, yet found it ‘too painful to live with’ after some years.

Dawn of Christianity (1841), a round image on a square canvas, and Peace Burial at Sea (1842), square, one visionary, the other a memorial to Wilkie based on witnesses’ reports and Turner’s intimate knowledge of the sea, were both dismissed as follies, as were two square paintings of 1843, reflecting on a cataclysm in conjunction with color as images of evil and of hope: Shade and Darkness – the Evening of the Deluge and Light and Color (Gothe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Delude.

When he painted The Angel standing in the Sun (1846) it was claimed that he had ‘taken leave of form altogether’ while his use of color in mighty contrasts was seen as ‘consummate’. His paintings of Venice, resulting from visits in 1833 and 1840, drew praise in spite of their pessimistic undertone; the watercolors he made there include some of his most poetic and delicate.

In NorhamCastle, Sunrise (probably after 1835 and perhaps unfinished) he used oils with similar delicacy to catch the effect of early light seen through mist over water in a place he had painted several times before. Other oils of the period show the same delicate washes; Turner did not exhibit them. Some of them seem to have been removed from his studio, and thus from the bequest, after his death, notably Landscape with a River…, which went into a Paris collection and was admired by Pissarro.

His late sea paintings, some of them exhibited by him, come close to being abstract constructions in which the texture of paint, as well as tone and color and compositional dynamics, together convey experiences whose truth we can only guess at and whose beauty it has taken time to recognize.

Turner’s mastery was apparent early, especially to fellow painters. He was elected Professor of Perspective at the Academy in 1807, and Professor of Painting in 1810.

He died a very wealthy man. He had sold well but he had kept pictures he considered key works and had bought others back. He bequeathed his finished paintings to the National Gallery in London, asking that Two of them should hang beside two paintings by Claude (as they do today), and that the others – about 100 – should be shown in a Turner Gallery. This has not been done: the many works on paper he left are almost all in the British Museum, a few oils are in the National Gallery and the remainder went to the Tate Gallery where a separate wing, the Gore Gallery, displays many of them.

Turner was the supreme romantic painter, more so than Delacroix (whom he visited, probably in 1833); he is seen as a forerunner of impressionism because of his focus on light; he should perhaps also be seen as an early symbolist and, because of the way some of his paintings draw the viewer into compositional vortices, as a pre-urban futurist.

His range of accomplishment, from the rendering of facts that all could recognize as true and artistic to the picturing of visions full of awe, is unique.

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