The English painter Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was one of the greatest romantic interpreters of nature in the history of Western art and is still unrivaled in the virtuosity of his painting of light.
The son of a barber, J. M. W. Turner was born on April 23, 1775, in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London. After an illness he was sent to school at Brentford, where his uncle was a butcher. From this period dates Turner's lifelong attachment to the Thames and its scenery. His father is said to have sold Turner's boyhood drawings and copies of engravings at 1 to 3 shillings at his shop, and this may have influenced his decision to have the boy educated as a painter. There is uncertainly about his early drawing masters other than the topographical watercolor painter Thomas Malton. In 1789 Turner was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools, where he attended life classes and worked fairly regularly from the antique from 1790 to 1793.
In 1791 Turner went to Bristol to sketch medieval buildings as far afield as Bath and Malmesbury Abbey, and especially the romantic Avon gorges. The English watercolor school was then rapidly reaching its golden age, and from 1794 to 1797 he worked in the great collection of Dr. Monro, who opened his home to young artists and paid Turner and Thomas Girtin to make copies in the evening, partly with the object of encouraging them. Girtin drew the outlines and Turner washed in the effects.
During this period Turner developed an astonishing command of technique, emulating the effects obtained by Claude Lorrain, Thomas Gainsborough, and the leaders of the modern English watercolor school. Turner quickly became the most brilliant topographical artist of his day, combining minutely observed realism with an incomparable richness of tints and glow of light.
In 1796 Turner scored a signal success at the Royal Academy with Fisherman at Sea (now identified with an oil painting). Thereafter his development broadly followed two lines. The first was that of the watercolorist who revolutionized the technique of oil painting in the course of dissolving form in light, atmosphere, and color. He was the first English painter to be attacked and ridiculed for being modern in the sense of tending to the abstract.
The second line was that of the devotee of the picturesque who became a romantic via the theatrical sublime. Turner's early and profitable sketching tours in search of picturesque scenery became the habit of a lifetime. The castles and mountains of Wales, the coast of England, its rivers and valleys, the antiquities of Scotland, the Rhine, the Alps—the list of his tours is almost a complete guide to picturesque travel from the turn of the century. He early developed an admiration for Claude Lorrain, Claude Joseph Vernet, and especially Philip James de Loutherbourg, the father of Drury Lane picturesque; they appealed to Turner's taste for the melodramatic with their paintings of avalanches, storms, shipwrecks, and conflagrations.
At the Royal Academy, Turner had been taught that the highest aim of an artist was to become a history painter illustrating the most heroic themes of the Bible, antiquity, and modern history. But he did not rely primarily on narrative association to elevate his landscapes. From the late 1790s he exhibited paintings with quotations from his favorite poets, including Thomson, Milton, and Ossian. In 1812 he showed at the Royal Academy Hannibal Crossing the Alps with a quotation from his own projected long poem The Fallacies of Hope.
It is greatly to the credit of the Royal Academy that the career of this revolutionary painter was one of uninterrupted success. He first exhibited in 1790 at the age of 15, was elected associate royal academician in 1799 and royal academician in 1802, and became professor of perspective in 1807 and deputy president in 1845.
In 1819 Turner visited Venice for the first time. He had long outgrown the realism which made Calais Pier (1803) and The Shipwreck (1805) tour-de-force demonstrations of his technical powers, and in the second painting he translated the shipwreck into a romantic symbol of man at the mercy of the violence of nature. Even the watercolors made from his sketches on his first visit to the Alps in 1802 are firmly controlled by observation and his scientific interest in geology. The liberating impact of Turner's experiences in Venice took some time to develop, for the majority of pencil sketches, of which he made large quantities during his short stay, are shorthand notations of meticulous accuracy.
Turner went even further than the impressionists later in abstracting light and color from his vision of nature, but unlike them he was principally interested in capturing transient effects under different conditions. He relied on a prodigious and highly trained visual memory in addition to his sketches. A Mrs. Simon recorded that during a rainstorm in 1843 he put his head out of a train window for nearly 9 minutes and shut his eyes in intense concentration for a quarter of an hour. The following year he exhibited Rain, Steam, and Speed—The Great Western Railway, which has been described as a salute to the new railway age. It is in marked contrast to the Fighting Téméraire (1839), a painting of the veteran of the Battle of Trafalgar being tugged on its last journey to be broken up, which Ruskin said was the most pathetic picture ever painted. Turner's last paintings on classical themes, from Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus (1829) to Hero and Leander (1837), are even more subjective orchestrations of color, although equally the outcome of his phenomenological studies.
Turner died on Dec. 19, 1851, and was buried as a national hero in St. Paul's Cathedral. He left a fortune of more than £140, 000 to found a charity for "Decayed Artists" and a vast hoard of sketches and his finest paintings, many of which he had bought back to leave to the nation. But his will was faultily drafted, and it was successfully contested by distant and probably disliked relatives. Only the paintings reached the destination he had intended, and the greatest of them are on permanent display in the Tate Gallery, London.
Much of Turner's life was a well-kept secret, including his relations with a widow, Sarah Danby, by whom he allegedly had two daughters. His short figure and beaklike face lent themselves to caricature, but he cut a not undistinguished figure in the academy and the social circles in which he chose to move—a few wealthy friends who were connoisseurs of art and a larger number of casual acquaintances among the uneducated, for he relished low life. His vulgarity of pronunciation was probably cultivated, for it gave flavor to his brusque humor. In his last years he lived the life of a recluse under an assumed name in Chelsea.
The reputation of Turner has suffered from both his virtuosity and the baroque cast of his imagination. Lord Clark, not an unsympathetic critic, has castigated, in Landscape into Art (1949), the antics of his reckless technique, the badness of what survives of his unfinished poem, and the ugliness of some of his favorite forms. The key to Turner's imaginative authenticity is probably to be found in his boyhood responses to literature as well as nature. His eye never ceased to make new discoveries, so to look at Turner is always to see nature afresh. He was also a visionary, and it is the visionary in Turner that makes his greatest paintings haunt the imagination.
From John Ruskin, who chose Turner as the central hero of volume 1 (1843) of his Modern Painters, to Lord Clark, Turner has occasioned fine criticism. The scholarly literature is disappointing. Alexander J. Finberg, The Life of J. M. W. Turner (1939; revised by Hilda F. Finberg, 1961), is a mine of facts, based on monumental research. Jack Lindsay, J. M. W. Turner: His Life and Work (1966), is controversial but worth reading for many original ideas and for its bibliography. The best short account is Lawrence Gowing, Turner: Imagination and Reality (1966), which also has a useful bibliography. See also Michael Kitson, J. M. W. Turner (1964), and John Rothenstein and Martin Butlin, Turner (1964). The best modern authorities are John Gage and Martin Butlin, who have hitherto confined their research mainly to specialist studies.