Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851)


Joseph Mallord William Turner, born April 23, 1775, died. December. 19, 1851, is often regarded as the greatest of all landscape painters and an artist of uniquely varied ability. He drew as a child and began his studies at the Royal Academy schools (1789-93) in his early teens. He also copied the watercolors of others and learned from the example of his friend Thomas Girtin. The steady demand for drawings of picturesque architecture prompted the young Turner to travel throughout Britain, Wales, Yorkshire, and Scotland as well as the southern counties. He was a frequent visitor to Dorset painting sunsets over Poole Harbour. These journeys made him aware of natural scenery and atmosphere and suggested the use of the oil medium. In 1796 he began to exhibit oils at the Royal Academy. The splendidly poetic Buttermere Lake (1798; Tate Gallery, London) was finished, as was Turner's habit, from notations made in one of the sketchbooks he always carried with him.

Turner was elected to the Royal Academy in 1802 and in the same year left for a visit to France that marks the beginning of a new phase in his career. His Calais Pier (1803; Tate Gallery) magnificently recalls the stormy crossing. He recorded his first view of the Alps in watercolors, and a visit to the Louvre opened his eyes to the richness of European artistic tradition. When the Napoleonic wars ended, he began to alternate tours on the Continent with expeditions in Britain, and his work became wonderfully varied.

He liked to paint epic scenes of catastrophe in which the fury of the elements underlines humanity's insignificance within nature's scheme; an example is The Wreck of a Transport Ship (c.1805-10; Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon). Other works in this vein include Burning of the Houses of Parliament (1835; Philadelphia Museum of Art) and Snow Storm at Sea (1842; Tate Gallery). A number of his earlier oils show him refining his own ideas by working after the manner of such masters as Claude Lorrain and Aelbert Cuyp. The mezzo tinted plates of his Liber Studiorum (1807-19) review the variety of his themes: Historical, Mountainous, Pastoral, Marine, and Architectural. Turner's visits to Italy from 1819 on made him increasingly conscious of the effects of light and color, an interest reflected in both his watercolors and his oils. These increasingly experimental and abstract productions culminated in the gorgeous Swiss watercolors of 1840-46. The well-known Fighting Temeraire (1838; National Gallery, London) was rivaled, some years later, by Rain, Steam and Speed (1844; National Gallery).

After Turner's death approximately 280 paintings and 19,000 drawings and watercolors were cataloged by his devoted admirer John Ruskin. A new building at the Tate Gallery in London--the Clore Gallery for the Turner Collection--designed by the Scottish architect James Stirling opened in 1987. It is devoted entirely to the nearly 300 oil paintings and the 19,000 works on paper that comprise the national collection of Turner's work.

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