Joseph Mallord William Turner was an English painter, watercolourist and printmaker who lived and worked in the late 1700s and early 1800s. You might know him from his swirling, light-filled Romantic paintings of land- and seascapes. A famous artist in his own lifetime, Turner is considered today to be one of the great British painters and has inspired generations of later artists.
For example: when French artists Claude Monet (best known for his Water Lilies) and Camille Pissarro took refuge in London during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, their discovery of Turner’s atmospheric paintings played a major role in the development of their art. (Monet and Pissarro were Impressionists: they sought to capture light, colour, and natural effects in their paintings.) A century after the Impressionists found Turner in London, the American abstract painter Mark Rothko donated his Seagram Murals to Tate, in part because of his admiration for Turner’s late painting.
That painters as diverse as Monet and Rothko drew from Turner’s work only goes to show Turner’s importance then and now. From Romanticism to pre-Impressionism, watercolours to oils, architectural details to churning seascapes, there is something in Turner’s work for everyone.
Turner the man
Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in London on April 23, 1775, in London, to a barber and a wig-maker. He remained a Londoner and kept a working-class Cockney accent all his life, avoiding the veneer of social polish acquired by many artists of the time as they climbed the professional ladder.
Possibly due to the ill health of his mother, the young Turner was sent to stay with various relatives as a child, and from a young age was captivated by the sea—a subject that would appear in his paintings again and again.
At the age of 14 he decided to become an artist, and began to study at the schools of the Royal Academy. Turner exhibited his first oil painting at the Royal Academy, Fishermen at Sea, in 1796, when he was twenty-one. He continued to exhibit at the RA and remained involved with the Academy throughout his career.
A fiercely private man, Turner kept the details of his life private from most people, including his own family. His primary loyalties were to his professional colleagues and friends, including a few patrons and benefactors who regularly supported and bought his work. In later life, he became much more of an eccentric individual. His colleague, friend, and great critical champion John Ruskin described him like this:
"I found in him a somewhat eccentric, keen-mannered, matter-of-fact, English-minded gentleman: good-natured evidently, bad-tempered evidently, hating humbug of all sorts, shrewd, perhaps a little selfish, highly intellectual, the powers of his mind not brought out with any delight in their manifestation, or intention of display, but flashing out occasionally in a word or a look."
Turner’s health began to fail in 1845, when he was seventy, although he lived and continued to paint, until the age of seventy-six, when he died at his home in London.
- Was J.M.W. Turner a madman or master? David Blayney Brown, co-curator of The EY Exhibition: Late Turner – Painting Set Free, explores this question
Turner the artist
As an artist, Turner displayed a visible evolution in his painting style throughout his long career. Although his early focus was on the genre of landscape, as his career progressed he began to pay less attention to the details of objects and landscape and more attention to the effects of light and colour. He became increasingly fascinated with natural and atmospheric elements. But as a young artist, Turner was a keen observer and recorder of the things in his world.
When Turner was a boy, his father encouraged his son’s artistic talent, exhibiting the young artist’s drawings and watercolours in his shop. At the age of fourteen Turner decided to become an artist professionally. The young Turner augmented his studies by working for architects and architectural draughtsmen. In the hundreds of drawings he made of buildings and towns throughout his career, this early interest and training in architectural drawing can be clearly seen.
Turner first exhibited at the Royal Academy—a major achievement—in 1790. He initially exhibited watercolours there, but in 1796 he exhibited his first oil painting, Fishermen at Sea when he was only twenty-one. In the following years the works he painted and exhibited delved into history, literature and myth, and saw him challenging the styles of the Old Masters and making rapid advances in his technique.
In comparison to many other artists of his day, including his contemporary John Constable, Turner saw success relatively quickly and suddenly. He was helped by a group of wealthy patrons who were willing to buy, commission, and provide general assistance—including funding his travels and studies abroad.
Throughout the first half of the 19th century, Turner was unstoppable. He dominated British landscape painting in a thoroughly Romantic style which was driven by the immediacy of personal experience, emotion, and the boundless power of imagination. His landscapes varied from the sublime to the picturesque, each artwork exploring atmosphere through his careful attention to light and colour, and an expanding repertoire of techniques.
Turner’s appetite for mountains, notably the Rigi in Switzerland above, and the grander forms of nature grew from his regular travels. His earliest tours were within Britain during the 1790s. It was in 1819, when he was forty-four, and at the height of his powers as a painter, that he made his first trip to Italy, filling twenty-three sketchbooks with drawings and notes. The city of Venice became a recurring theme of his late work, in oils and watercolours, many of which were made during a stay in 1840.
He worked in watercolours and drawings as well as oils, but it was the influence of the first two that would help produce his unique personal style, which often used oil paint in a broad and translucent manner to create scenes of vast light and colour.
A Turner Top Three
Not sure where to start looking in the 20,000 paintings and drawings Turner left behind? Here are three of Turner’s most popular works in the Tate collection:
Particularly in his later life, Turner painted many pictures exploring the effects of the elements: wind, rain, snow, sea, and storms. In this painting, a steamboat struggles to stay afloat in the heart of the vortex. The swirling shapes, shifting colours, and blurry marks make it seem as if we’re looking directly into a storm. It is famously said that Turner came up with this image while lashed to the mast of a ship during an actual storm at sea. While this boast is probably fiction, the powerful visual effect and Turner’s great skill remain.
Does Turner’s lie have an effect on your perception of this painting?
The first oil painting Turner exhibited at the Royal Academy, this is an image evocative of the moonlit scenes popularised at the time by artists like Philip James de Loutherbourg and Joseph Wright of Derby. These painters were largely responsible for fuelling the 18th-century vogue for nocturnal subjects, which were thought to best convey the vulnerability of human life in the face of nature. The blast of moonlight outshines the tiny flickering lamp of the fishermen’s boat, further emphasising this point.
Take another look at Snow Storm above, and compare it to this painting. Can you see the development in Turner’s style?
For Turner, the figure of Hannibal—here leading his armies to attack Italy in 218 BC—had powerful associations with Napoleon Bonaparte, whose campaigns were raging during the artist’s lifetime. In official portraits of Napoleon, he was depicted as a tremendously heroic figure, particularly as he was about to lead his own armies across the St Bernard Pass. In contrast to those images, Snow Storm does not celebrate the power of the individual. Instead, ominous clouds curl over treacherous landscapes, expressing man’s vulnerability in the face of nature’s overwhelming force. Attention is focused upon victims of the conflict and the struggling soldiers, while Hannibal himself is but a tiny smudge atop an elephant on the furthest point of the horizon.
Turner’s late style, which was characterised by energetic brushwork and relative lack of descriptive details, combined with the uncompromising nature of his modern subject matter, surprised even some of his most devoted patrons such as John Ruskin.
In 1843, Ruskin described Turner as “the father of modern art.” His loose brushwork and vibrant colouring often provoked shocked responses from his contemporaries. One hundred and seventy years later, Turner’s work still looks surprisingly modern. His experiments in technique—his dogged investigations into what paint can do—as evidenced particularly by his later work, place Turner as a visionary forerunner of later developments in painting, such as impressionism and abstract expressionism.
As well as making rapid advances in his visual technique, Turner was also thoroughly “modern” in his choice of subject. Alongside painting traditional grandiose subjects from history, literature, and mythology, Turner captured the everyday life of cities, ports and the countryside on his sketching tours, depicting the working and leisure activities of ordinary men and women, and providing a fascinating document of early nineteenth century life.
Want to join the conversation?
- Was Turner a wealthy man by the end of his life?(4 votes)
- According to biography.com, In his will, "Turner left most of his £140,000 fortune to a charity for “decayed artists,” but through years of litigation, Turner’s distant relatives ended up with the lion’s share." That's a lot of money in today's world, as he died in 1851. I think it would be at least five million (estimate, probably more). Hope this helps!(9 votes)
- what author's name can i use for my citation of this source?(2 votes)
- Cite this page as: Tate, "J.M.W. Turner at Tate Britain," in Smarthistory, January 25, 2016, accessed January 16, 2021, https://smarthistory.org/room-jmw-turner/.(2 votes)
- did turner paint duplicates of any of his paintings or versions of the same scene? or did he have students that also copied his works?(1 vote)
- In the discussion of Snow Storm, it doubts Turner actually lashed himself to a mast during a storm. But that is totally believable. John Muir once lashed himself to the top of a giant redwood during a thunderstorm, and observed the storm while the treetop was violently whipping back and forth. I can see Turner doing the same at sea.(1 vote)