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Joseph Mallord William Turner

English, 1775 - 1851

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When his son was only about ten years old, Turner's father, William (1745-1829), a barber and wigmaker living in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, and "a chatty old fellow, [who] talked fast,"1 told one customer, the Royal Academician Thomas Stothard (1755-1834), "My son is going to be a painter."2 Accordingly, in 1789 he placed the boy in the Royal Academy schools and in the studio of the watercolorist and architectural draftsman Thomas Malton (1726-1801).

One contemporary described Turner at this period as "not like young people in general, he was singular and very silent...exclusively devoted to his drawing,"3 so even at this stage his personality was marked by an obsessive dedication to his art. By the early 1790s Turner was touring England, working as a topographical draftsman in the tradition of Edward Dayes (1763-1804) and Paul Sandby (1730-1809). Slightly later, from 1794 to 1797, he worked with Thomas Girtin (1775-1802) in the evenings for the collector Dr. Thomas Monro (1759-1833) in his house at the Adelphi, copying drawings by John Robert Cozens (1752-1797).

The range of influences forming Turner's early style is formidable. His first watercolor, a view of Lambeth Palace executed in the most fashionable topographical manner, appeared on the walls of the Royal Academy as early as 1790, when he was fifteen. In 1796 he exhibited his first oil, a moonlit seascape, Fishermen at Sea (36 x 48 1/8", London, Tate Gallery), which revealed how closely he had looked at the marine paintings by Willem van de Velde the Younger (1633-1707) and also at the then-popular seascapes of the French artists Claude Joseph Vernet (1714-1789) and Philipp de Loutherbourg (1740-1812). Above all, Turner's oil paintings of the later 1790s, and particularly his composition of 1800 The Fifth Plague of Egypt (49 x 72", Indianapolis, Indiana, The Indianapolis Museum of Art), reflect his close study of the paintings of the founder of the English classical landscape tradition, Richard Wilson (1713-1782).

Turner also seems to have revered the president of the Royal Academy Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) and may even have worked for a time in the aging president's studio, during ''the happiest of my days," 1789-92.4 Certainly the boy accepted the values and dictates of the president, wholeheartedly embracing a system of teaching derived from the art theorists of the seventeenth century and disseminated in Sir Joshua's Discourses. From Reynolds, Turner learned to differentiate between the hierarchies of history, landscape, and genre painting, and to idealize nature, transcending the particular to express the general truth. But more than this, he learned from Reynolds to appeal in his art to the imagination and not simply to the eye.5

Among landscape painters, the Academicians held in highest esteem the seventeenth-century French classicists Poussin (1594-1665), Claude Lorrain (1600-1682), and Gaspard Dughet (1615-1675)--artists who had set into the noblest landscapes stories from the classical past illustrating profound moral lessons. Turner's ambition was to emulate these masters by melding the relatively lowly category of landscape painting with the highest achievement possible for an artist, the history picture painted in the grand manner. But this much Richard Wilson had done. Turner's achievement would be to extend the definition of what a history picture was, to transform through his genius not merely idealized classical landscapes, but also the seascape, the genre subject, and the picturesque view, into potent statements about nature's awesome power to destroy or to heal.

Turner, like Reynolds, was a genius who worked dispassionately and thoughtfully within the establishment; only when he had secured a place in the Royal Academy--first as an Associate member in 1799 (at twenty-four, the earliest possible age), and then as a full Academician in 1802--did he begin to experiment in extending the definitions of his art. Even then, and until around 1819, his palette remained relatively subdued, in accordance with the most conservative theories of the picturesque and the sublime, while his compositions often paid homage to one of the most revered old masters, Claude Lorrain, as in Dido Building Carthage (1815, 61 1/4 x 91 1/4", London, National Gallery) or (Crossing the Brook (1815, 76 x 65, London, Tate Gallery).

Having noted this cautious streak, however, we must at once point to such an astonishingly avant-garde work as his great machine of 1812, Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps (57 1/2, x 9 1/2", London, Tate Gallery), a painting that announced a whole new genre of cataclysmic history painting in England, later to be exploited by John Martin (1789-1814) and Francis Danby (1793-1861). Hannibal was remarkable not only for its fascinating iconography--its subject from ancient history refers at once to the recent Napoleonic invasion of Italy, the possible invasion of England, and the eventual decline of all empire--but also for its composition; it is amazing that the picture was accepted by the public of 1812 as a finished picture at all: composed simply of vast arcs of dark and light tone, it draws the eye into a chaotic vortex of swirling wind, rain, and snow, from which, only slowly, the eye picks out the progressing army, with the tiny figure of Hannibal on his elephant in the distance.

Turner had actually seen the Alps on his first visit to the Continent during the few months in 1802 when Europe was at peace. Throughout his life he was to return to Switzerland, drawn to its mountains, crags, gales, and avalanches as the very embodiment of nature at its most extreme. But on this first trip he also could view the art treasures amassed in the Louvre by Napoleon, and on his return to England he seems systematically to have set out to imitate those old masters he most admired. In the Royal Academy of 1803 he paid tribute to Poussin and Dughet in Bonneville, Savoy, with Mont Blanc (36 x 48", Switzerland, private collection); to Titian (c. 1487/90-1576) in The Holy Family (40 1/4 x 55 3/4", London, Tate Gallery); and to van de Velde in Calais Pier, with French Poissards Preparing for Sea: An English Packet Arriving (67 3/4 x 94 1/2", London, National Gallery).

War prevented a second trip abroad until the artist's visit to the Low Countries in 1817. His first trip to Italy took place in 1819, when he traveled for four months to Venice, Rome, and Naples. In the watercolors executed in twenty Italian sketchbooks of 1819, particularly those of Venice, a new phase in Turner's art began. These luminous studies of architecture dissolving in light and water seem to have triggered some mechanism whereby his way of seeing the world was turned inside out: before them, he viewed objects as volume and outline, tinted with color; after 1819 he began to see color predominating over form--to see the world as light and color infusing matter with life.

As the culmination of this middle period, 1819 to c. 1834, Ruskin pointed to Turner's mythological painting of 1829 Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus—Homer’s Odyssey (52 1/4 x 80", London, National Gallery), as "the central picture in Turner's career."6 In it, all his early themes--the obsession with the mythological past and the subject drawn from classical literature, the passion for the history of art, the increasing devotion to lurid, vivid effects of light at dawn or sunset--come together in a fairy-tale description of the minute Ulysses defying the mountainous giant Polyphemus from an outlandish galley puffed up by the wind and attended by phosphorescent Nereids.

Turner was now fifty-nine, and it might have been that Ulysses would mark the high point of his artistic achievement: by this date his father and most of his early patrons such as William Beckford, Walter Fawkes (1769-1825) of Farnley Hall in Yorkshire, and Sir John Fleming Leicester (1762-1827) were dead. But Turner's greatest achievements were yet to come, sparked by two elements that entered his life in the 1830s. The first, beginning around 1827, was his intimacy with George Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont (1751-1837), and his close association with the earl's house Petworth in Sussex. The paintings commissioned by Lord Egremont from Turner are not so remarkable as those pictures of Petworth that Turner executed entirely as private statements. In these, his love for the house, its park, and his patron seems to have given him the security to test still further the limits of what could be described in paint. And so, in a masterpiece that has always been called Interior at Petworth and is certainly to be dated to c. 1837 (35 3/4 x 48", London, Tate Gallery), he painted objects dissolving in light and color in a way that verges on the visually incomprehensible. Writing of this painting, Luke Herrmann said, "Turner left all conventions of style and technique behind him. In the history of art he is breaking new ground here."7 Herrmann did not add that if, as is thought, the Interior at Petworth was painted after Lord Egremont's death in token of the desolation felt by the painter for the patron he had lost, then it is also a most moving expression of personal sorrow.8

The second turning point that may have led to his late style was Turner's witnessing of the burning of the Houses of Parliament in October 1834. There the conflagration, reflected in the waters of the Thames, may, as Gowing suggested,9 have broken down the barriers for Turner between imagination and reality, which were never quite to separate again: the most evanescent effects--fire, steam, spray, wind, sheer motion--are the themes that dominate Turner's late paintings from 1834 to 1851. Ruskin described such masterpieces as The Slave Ship (1840, 35 3/4 x 48", Boston, Museum of Fine Arts), Peace--Burial at Sea (1842, 34 1/4 x 34 1/8”, London, Tate Gallery), and Rain, Steam, and Speed--The Great Western Railway (1844, 35 3/4 x 48", London, National Gallery) as "the noblest landscapes ever yet conceived by human intellect";10 and they are pictures so powerful that they strike at the deepest chords of human experience--for they are about, respectively, the nature of evil, of grief, and the inevitability of change.

Turner was an artist who, like Picasso, could hardly touch a canvas or a sheet of paper without shaping it with his own protean originality. Discussing his work as an engraver is impossible in a biographical note of this length, except to point to his famous Liber Studiorum (published in fourteen parts between 1807 and 1819), in which he set out to illustrate in seventy-one prints the various categories of landscape scenery, from the historical and the pastoral to the marine and the architectural; nor, from the many projects illustrating English and Continental scenery can we single out one series, although his watercolors for Charles Heath's Picturesque Views in England and Wales, which came out in twenty-four parts between 1827 and 1838, have been described as "among the most wonderful objects of their kind ever produced."11

Turner lived from 1799 at 64 Harley Street, an address changed in 1810 to 47 Queen Anne Street. At various points in his life he also took houses at Upper Mall, Hammersmith (1806-11), Twickenham (1813), and finally from 1846 until his death in 1851 in a cottage in Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. Throughout his life he exhibited at the Royal Academy and the British Institution, and from 1804 until 1816 he also held annual exhibitions of his own works in the gallery he built onto his Harley Street house--exhibitions that were the successors to Gainsborough's (1727-1788) private exhibitions at Schomberg House in Pall Mall and contemporary with Blake's (1757-1827) famous one-man show in 1809.

Turner was hardly educated in the formal sense, and unlike the eloquent John Constable (1776-1837), his rival for the title of the greatest of all English landscape painters, was barely able to express himself clearly even in the simplest business correspondence. Yet, throughout his career he wrote poetry and after 1813 attached to his exhibits at the Royal Academy quotations from his own gloomy epic poem Fallacies of Hope.

In Modern Painters (1842-60) when Ruskin came critically to examine the iconography of Turner’s works, he interpreted them didactically, unraveling their hidden meanings for the public in brilliant exegeses, much as though he were an evangelical preacher propounding the significance of passages from the Bible. Ruskin believed that the themes of many of Turner's oil paintings warned against the moral and physical decline of his country. Whether this is true is open to question; but what we can say with confidence is that Turner, like Blake, was a visionary, a man out of his own time rather than, like Constable, a seeker after the truth of external sensation. When Turner died in 1851 he had amassed a fortune of £140,000 and left over thirty thousand sketches from his studio to the nation. When in 1975 his bicentennial was celebrated by a vast exhibition at the Royal Academy, comprising 450 works, what was remarkable was that not one of those works could have been removed without diminishing our knowledge of some facet of his overwhelming achievement.

Richard Dorment, from British Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art: From the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Century (1986), pp. 392-395.

1. According to F. E. Trimmer. A. J. Finberg. The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A. 2nd ed., rev.,
with a supplement by Hilda F. Finberg. Oxford, 1961, p. 9.
2. Ibid., p. 16.
3. Ibid., p. 27.
4. According to John Gage. Colour in Turner: Poetry and Truth. London, 1969, p. 33.
5. Michael Kitson. J.M.W. Turner. London, 1964, p. 16.
6. John Ruskin. The Works of John Ruskin. Edited by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. 39 vols. London, 1903-12, vol. 13, p. 136.
7. Luke Herrmann. Turner: Paintings, Watercolours, Prints, and Drawings. London, 1975, p. 37.

8. See Martin Butlin and Evelvn Joll. The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner. 2 vols. New Haven and London, 1977, vol. 1, no. 449.
9. Gowing, in New York, The Museum of Modern Art. Turner: Imagination and Reality. 1966 (by Lawrence Gowing), p. 45.
10. John Ruskin. The Works of John Ruskin. Edited by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. 39 vols. London, 1903-12, vol. 12, p. 391.
11. London, Royal Academy, Turner, 1775-1851, November 16, 1974-March 2, 1975, p. 121.

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY:
Walter Thornbury, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., Founded on Letters and Papers Furnished by His Friends and Fellow Academicians, 2 vols. (London, 1862); Walter Thornburv. The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., Founded on Letters and Papers Furnished by His Friends and Fellow Academicians. Rev. ed. London and New York, 1877; C. F. Bell. A List of the Works Contributed to Public Exhibitions by J.M.W. Turner, R.A. London, 1901; Walter Armstrong. Turner. 2 vols. London and New York, 1902; John Ruskin. The Works of John Ruskin. Edited by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. 39 vols. London, 1903-12, passim; A. J. Finberg. The National Gallery: A Complete Inventory of the Drawings of the Turner Bequest: With Which Are Included the Twenty-three Drawings Bequeathed by Mr. Henry Vaughan. 2 vols. London, 1909; Bernard Falk. Turner the Painter: His Hidden Life. London, 1938; A. J. Finberg, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A. (Oxford, 1939); Charles Clare. J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work. London, 1951; A. J. Finberg. The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A. 2nd ed., rev., with a supplement by Hilda F. Finberg. Oxford, 1961; Michael Kitson. J.M.W. Turner. London, 1964; John Rothenstein and Martin Butlin. Turner. London and Melbourne, 1964; Jack Lindsay. J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work; A Critical Biography. London, 1966; Luke Herrmann, Ruskin and Turner (London, 1968); John Gage. Colour in Turner: Poetry and Truth. London, 1969; Graham Reynolds. Turner. London, 1969; John Gage, Turner: Rain, Steam and Speed (London, 1972); Luke Herrmann. Turner: Paintings, Watercolours, Prints, and Drawings. London, 1975; Martin Butlin and Evelvn Joll. The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner. 2 vols. New Haven and London, 1977; Andrew Wilton. The Life and Work of J.M.W. Turner. London, 1979; John Gage, ed., Collected Correspondence of J.M. W. Turner, with an Early Diary and a Memoir by George Jones (Oxford, 1980); Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll. The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner. Rev. ed. 2 vols. New Haven and London, 1984.

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