Joseph william mallord TURNER – a Singular English “Forza della Natura”!

(1775-1851, age 76?!)

Complex and controversial: a British titan, alongside Hogarth but in a sharply contrasting way, the tireless, prolific, innovative Romantic versus the remorseless polemical satirist.

But in no way a „prescient Modernist“! (Unlike Courbet, Manet, or even Goya?)

And do why we like him? Escape from the Madding crowd?



  • A rare singular talent, but a complex man:
    • in life: intelligent, energetic, mean or generous, confounding, entertaining, a ‚character‘.
    • in art: precocious, prolific, versatile, uneven, driven / obsessive / competitive, a self-confident single-minded self-believer. And a performer!
  • A low born child prodigy“. Humble, difficult, urban London origins (like Hogarth). Close to his father! Mother unstable, commited 1800 (Turner 25). Short / gruff / taciturn / scruffy / eccentric / secretive? „Beetled about“. Odd, self-serving ambiguous personal relationships? Few friends? Cold towards his two daughters? But friendly, generous to some others? „Crude, rude, porcine, yet sensitive and tender.” (Andrew Wilton).
  • Hugely travelled, initially around England/Scotland/Wales, and then abroad (first in 1802, but then a gap to 1817 because of the Napoleonic Wars), eg 18 trips 1819-45, including 3 to Venice. Travel was a big influence on his subjects. Unlike Constable who travelled far less.
  • Recognised / successful in his time, full member Royal Academy (RA) at only 27, despite his coarse manner!
  • Also was a clever businesman, financially astute, promoted his work. And climbed socially (like Hogarth!), but within limits, thus to his chagrin a knighthood eluded him. Stayed his own man!
  • Thirst for knowledge, curious, empirical, a child of the Enlightenment! Cf Kant: “sapere aude“ = the courage to know.
  • Thus literate, well read, keen on poetry, if largely self-taught.
  • Training: studied at RA for about 4 years, then with topographical water colorist Thomas Malton. Early influence by Dutch marine /landscape painters, eg van Ruisdael, then strongly influenced by important French landscapist Claude, and also Richard Wilson (English, especially his landscapes). An early passion for history / myths in his subjects. Followed / interpreted Claude partly because Claude sold well in England? But he keenly studied much past art. Also see the influence of Titian?
  • Basically a traditional, conservative, Romantic painter, in obsessive pursuit of the lyrical sublime in Nature? Nodding to Germany’s CD Friedrich, born a year earlier. Especially including his famous later works. Despite his pictorial innovation he venerated, was inspired by, past art.
  • Thus we see a strong focus on dramatic, atmospheric depiction of myths / old history, landscapes / seascapes. And especially raw violent overwhelming nature.
  • Thomas Hoving (2008): „a painter of compelling fantasies who [used] landscape and the sea as stage sets… a magician and poet of color and light and atmosphere who transforms grim — and jejune — reality into a surreal, dreamy never-never land.. both intimate and universal.”. Not bad!
  • Probably religious, if not formally? But more the Deist than Theist?
  • Thus he showed little of the Social Realist. Despite being based his whole life in London, overall he showed comparatively little interest in the tumultuous events around him, like the Napoleonic Wars and England’s economic / political rise. Eg per contra Goya, Courbet, Manet? And also per contra William Hogarth a century earlier, whose focus on satirising English urban life was totally different.
  • Turner observed his world but did not really engage? Thus his Romanticmision was tempered by some contemporary comment /genre subjects? Eg workers (like pilcharders, keelmen shovelling coal), a battle in India, Trafalgar, Waterloo. Burning of Houses of Parliament. And a comment on slavery?
  • Element of deliberate innovative realism in these, but no sense of searching polemical realism? Rather they are still painted through Romantic brushes, are vehicles for his Romantic heart? Eg Rain, Steam and Speed (1842)!
  • His late works are arguably a therapeutic Romantic indulgence? The man was obsessed with capturing Nature.
  • So he was in no way a prescient „Modernist“! Even if he then influenced painters like Monet. The reverse is true, his art looked back. Cf S Shaama etc. But we now look back at his art with hindsight, and what hindsight: through the subsequent extraordinary Modernist revolution which arguably commenced in mid 19th C France with Edouard Manet..
  • Very few portraits, and NO still lives!
  • Massive output, „over 550 oil paintings, 2,000 watercolours, 30,000 paper works..” And included many prints, eg Liber Studiorum. But the quality of his work varied. Thomas Hoving (2008) again: „ Turner is like old studio-system Hollywood. He created a dozen true masterpieces that appeal to every generation. Hundreds of A-productions, which today seem quaint. And a plethora of B-movies Turner churned out to make a living.
  • He was innovative in technique, esp in exploration of light, observation of nature, in various subjects, but only in service of his Romantic mission.
  • His later critical and popular reception?
    • He famously polarised opinion in his day, championed by John Ruskin and certain important wealthy patrons, enough patronage to make him well off. But he was also roundly criticised, especilly his late works.
    • After his death he was more popular abroad in countries like France and the US.
    • But his reputation in his own country did not really take off till after WW2! And it was not until 1987,well over a century later, that his wishes were more or less honoured with th eopening of a dedicated gallery of his works at Tate Britain in London, a small selection of the vast trove he bequeathed to the nation.
  • And why is he so popular now? Well we look back on Turner with hindsight, on the other side of the momentous Modernist Revolution, and from a world quite transformed by the technological implications of the Industrial Revolution, applied so successfully, pervasively, by the Capitalist economies, especially since ww2.
  • So we can better „understand“, appreciate Turner’s ethereal later works, which so troubled many of his contemporaries, and his enthusiastic Romantic exploration in oil and water colour attracts many a viewer today prone to relief from the hurly-burly of 24-7 media and conviction politicians and commuting queues and leaf blowers.


Key paintings?

Fishermen at Sea, 1796, a moonscape, his first oil painting.

The Fifth Plague of Egypt, 1800, first history painting.

Dutch Boats in a Gale, 1801

Calais Pier, 1803

The Shipwreck, 1805

The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory, 1806-8

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his army crossing the Alps, 1812

St Mawes at the Pilchard Season, 1812

Frosty Morning, 1813

Staffa, Fingal’s Cave, 1832

The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834, 1835, two versions.

A Disaster at Sea, 1835

Keelmen heaving coals by moonlight, 1835

The Fighting ‘Temeraire, 1839

Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water, 1840

The Slave Ship (1840, formally Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on);

Peace – Burial at sea, 1842

THE CAMPO SANTO, VENICE, 1842, (Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio)

Red Rigi, 1842

Snow Storm–Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth making Signals in Shallow Water, and going by the Lead. The Author was in this Storm on the Night the Ariel left Harwich, 1842

Rail, Steam, Speed – Great Western Railway, 1844

Norham Castle, Sunrise, c 1845, oil.

Of which we are allowed only …. three.

  1. 1796. Fishermen at Sea, oil on canvas. Turner’s first oil painting shown at the Royal Academy
  2. 1812. St Mawes at the Pilchard Season, oil paint on canvas. Tate Britain, London.

1840 Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steam Boats of Shoal Water. Tate Britain, London.

ah-art turner 1796 fishermen at sea, his 1st oil at RA

St Mawes at the Pilchard Season exhibited 1812 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

ah-art turner 1840 Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water 92.1 x 122.2 cm, Clark Art Inst, MA



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