Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), “the painter of light”, was born in 1775 in Convent Garden, England. His interest in art became apparent to his mother’s brother when he resided with him in 1785, during her mental decline. He entered the Royal Academy of Art at the relatively young age of 14. His work is associated with the Romantic period and he is particularly known for his landscapes, historical and literature-based works. Pieces encompass etchings, watercolors and oil painting.
Education and Early Formative Experiences
His education and application to various techniques continued outside of the classroom. As a student and developing artist, he colored prints, worked as an architectural draftsman and designed theatrical sets. During the 1790s, he joined with Thomas Girtin and others in copying watercolors, prints and topographical drawings at the residence of Dr. Thomas Monro.
His travels around the continent helped to provide fresh material for his work. This began in 1802. He visited Switzerland, France and Venice but even events in his own backyard, like the conflagration of the Houses of Parliament in 1834 offered subject matter. Within the span of 5 decades, he would visit England, Scotland, Wales, Belgium, Holland, Italy, the Rhineland, and elsewhere. His sketches would continue to be used for inspiration, even in the work that was based on mythology or was more atmospheric in nature.
He was inspired by the Old Masters. He studied Piranesi’s architectural fantasies and copied works from Renaissance and Baroque masters. Poussin, Raphael and Titian are some of the artists that clearly influenced his work.
He became a full member of the Royal Academy of Arts at 26 and was elected President of Perspective at 31. Turner continued to have both admirers and critics of his work throughout his career.
Periods and Techniques
The work of his late period is held to be a precursor to modern art. Contemporary art society is drawn to this similarity in particular. This work was held as controversial in the Victorian era, some even attributing the increasing level of abstraction to problems associated with old age. Even though he was an artist with a prolific and varied output, one sees three themes that continue throughout his work and periods: imagery, composition and his interest in light.
His first exhibited works were carefully depicted watercolors of English sites of interest. His method consistently used first-hand observations. His watercolor techniques would inform his later oil paintings. From 1810-1820s, his technical experiments ran counter to accepted theory. While working on small scale topographical works, he gave the impression of forms by layering blocks of color in accordance with his own system of “light” and “dark” colors that contrasted with the accepted notions of contemporary color theory. For details, Turner worked the canvas while wet and dry, scraping, blotting, and wiping on wet canvas while scratching and drawing on dry. His watercolor methods carried over to his oil paintings which he built up from foundations of color.
His work reached back to events from the past but also touched on momentous events at his time. The fire at the House of Parliament, deaths of slaves during a typhoon, and the transformative effects of the Industrial Revolution all impacted on some of his most interesting work. They are The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (c. 1835), Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying: Typhoon Coming On (c. 1840), and Rain, Steam, and Speed: The Great Western Railway (c. 1844) respectively.
Striking Famous Examples
Fisherman at Sea (c. 1796)
This was his first oil painting exhibited at the Royal Academy. Turner depicts small fishing vessels overwhelmed in churning water during a storm at night. Obscured moonlight offers the only source of light here. The choppy waters, the tilting boats and the background featuring jagged rocks create an ominous mood. It evokes a powerlessness at the hands of nature. There is a narrative of a story within a commonly accepted use of medium.
The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizzen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory (c. 1806-8)
Turner depicts the ships clearly but the perspective used expands into the edges of the frame, engulfing the viewer within the scene. Smoke billows and cannons fire in Admiral Nelson’s final moments. This work is another oil on canvas.
Wreckers Coast of Northumberland (c. 1834)
In this scene, wreckers gather on the beach to watch a helpless ship in a storm. The participants, ships and castle on not clearly delineated. An idea of their substance and forms are given. The colors, orange, white, brown and gray-blue are prominent as are the waves of the storm itself. The storm is of primary importance as the center of the image. The picture is emotive and full of tension for the final narrative climax.
The Grand Canal, Venice (c. 1835)
The Grand Canal is a piece that is informed by a composite of impressions while in Venice. The perspective and scene would not be able to be reproduced in reality. This oil painting demonstrates less literal work and more of a general impression of the scene. Clouds appeared both scratched and layered. Yellows, blues and white brightens the view as a whole. Water shimmers but waves and the horizon are not clearly defined. The perspective opens again to embrace the viewer.
The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (c. 1835)
On October 17, 1834, The London Times wrote, “[s]hortly before 7 o’clock last night the inhabitants of Westminster, and of the districts on the opposite bank of the river, were thrown into the utmost confusion and alarm by the sudden breaking out of one of the most terrific conflagrations that has been witnessed for many years past… The Houses of the Lords and Commons and the adjacent buildings were on fire.” Turner was a spectator and recorded his impression in sketches used for this painting. Flames seem to rise up from the left and middle of the canvas to touch the sky. Reflected in the water as well, they seem to take up the entire left side of the frame. The flames, water, clouds and throng of spectators are impressions that make up a whole. Their individuality is not important in the portrayal of the scene.
Ovid Banished from Rome (c. 1838)
An impression is made with some ancient buildings seemingly sketched in here and there and then fading into the bright light. Figures are small and merely bit actors in the scene. The yellow and ochre hues take center stage as the painting with its widening perspective brings one into the story.
Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On) (c. 1840)
When exhibited in 1840, it was paired with an extract from his unfinished poem, “Fallacies of Hope”. An unsettling poem for an unseemly subject, the idea of arms are seen as figures are sent pell-mell into the churning waters. Hues of Red, orange white, blue-grey and black are vivid. Aquatic life have a feeding frenzy in the right foreground of the scene. Hands of slaves are raised in the left. Further on a ship breaks away from the death the viewer is subjected to.