A unique style of natural symbolism is seen in the widley influential school of English landscape painting. In the same way that art and literature are keys to the art of the French Romantics, English Romantic poetry is the key to the paintings of Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) one finds descriptions about nature in its terror and glory somewhat more often than in it's calmness and demurity. The idealised and fanciful landscape, often of Venice, represented one side of Turner's later style. The other was the increasingly direct expression of the destructiveness of nature is plainly seen especially in some of his seapieces. Using a revolving vortex-like composition he depicts the force of wind and water with vigorous brushwork. In certain watercolors he suspended altogether the concrete from of a specific subject, leaving almost everything in doubt but the positive existence of color. Traveling extensively through Europe, wherever he visited Turner studied the effects of sea and sky in every kind of weather, seemingly effortless watercolours and oil sketches were based on impressions of nature.

In his atmospheric depictions of shipwrecks and natural disasters such as The Slave Ship where dreamlike reality and fantasy merge and color is used to metaphorically evoke the power of nature over man. Influenced by Claude Lorrain, Turner abandoned form, simply showing shapes by merely outlining with light and color. Turner lent color autonomy and endowed it with a power of its own. This achievement was to be especially influential on 20th century art and by the end of his career his fascination with painting light foreshadowed both impressionism and abstract art which dispenses with shape and form altogether.

In certain watercolors he suspends completely the definition of a specific subject, leaving almost everything in doubt but the positive existence of color. Many of the exhibited paintings began the same way; the act of defining a particular scene was left until the varnishing days when the paintings were already hanging, and then performed with great brilliance. By the 1830s, as acquaintance Charles Eastlake explained to Turner's first biographer Walter Thornbury,' none of Turner's exhibited pictures could be said to be finished till he had worked on them when they were on the walls of the Royal Academy.'
Another contemporary artist described how Turner sent in a picture to the British Institution exhibition of 1835 in a state no more finished than 'a mere dab of several colours, and "without form and void"'; the account continues that 'Such a magician, performing his incantations in public, was an object of interest and attraction'.

At the age of 15 Turner received a rare honor when he was selcted to exhibit his first picture Fishermen at Sea in the Royal Academy exhibition in 1796. His mother died when he was very young and while his father worked as a barber, Turner would display his first works for sale in his father's shop window. Unlike most artists he was successful throughout most of his carreer. He became more reclusive and eccentric with few friends in his later years refusing to allow anyone to to watch him as he painted. Tempermantal and secretive he disappeared for several months. Later he was found very ill hiding in a house in Chelsea. He died December 19, 1851, leaving a large fortune that he hoped would be used to support what he called "decaying artists."


Justus, Kevin. "Art and Culture II." Tucson , Arizona.
1992. (Lecture presented at Pima Community College.)

De La Croix, Horst, Richard D. Tansey, and Diane Kirkpatrick.
Art Through the Ages. University of Michigan: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Turner was born in 1775. He died in 1851. In between he painted some of the most gorgeous, ambient images of landscapes, cities, and the natural environment ever to be committed to canvas. He was exhibited in the Royal Academy whilst he was still only 15; he remained popular throughout his life, was financially secure, travelled throughout Europe, and died at a ripe old age. He is thus the polar opposite of such romantic figures as William Blake and Lord Byron, although the works he produced were just as transcendent.

Turner's most famous paintings were rendered with oil, although he also produced watercolour studies. He had two distinct styles. As a trained draftsman he was capable of photographic realism, particularly in his watercolours, and his pictures of Venice, buildings, and ships. Later on in life he developed a more impressionistic style, creating paintings which gave the impression of form from little more than swirls of colour. This latter style is most famously exhibited in such paintings as 'Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth, which resembles a miasmic vortex of green and black, and 'Landscape with a River and a Bay in the Background' (he had a thing for literal titles), which initially appears to be a few brown splodges beneath a large bluey-white area.

He's often mentioned in the same sentence as John Constable, his junior by one year - both were English artists who produced landscapes, although Constable's work was more rugged and less wishy-washy than Turner's.

His last words were supposedly 'The sun is God'.

No doubt, one of the best painters of the 19th century, if not of all times.

Nevertheless there is one observation that really strike me while visiting an exhibition with 150 of Turner's works here in Germany (City of Essen, Folkwang museum): I noticed that most of his paintings are really "tourist-like paintings", i.e. when showing a landscape, a city or even the burning of the House of Lords he has always chosen the angle for his paintings, today's tourists would choose themselves for their photographies. Every time I see an english landscape painted by Turner I imagine a bus with 50 tourists, stopping exactly where Turner stood, taking out their cameras, crying "ahhhh" and "ooooh" and (if they are americans :) "grrrrrrrrreat", while taking dozens of pictures.
Once again, don't get me wrong: I don't say that he wasn't a good painter, I just say that he's the same for painting what Goethe is for literature: a perfect and intelligent tourist.

Reckoned by many to be the greatest British painter who ever lived, Turner's art is complex and contradictory. On the one hand he was a great landscape painter and a Romantic, highly praised by John Ruskin and linked to a movement associated with the countryside and anti-industrialism. On the other, he was a great painter of steam ships and railways, far better than Futurist artists at representing the power and speed of steam locomotives. Whilst a personal and expressive painter, whose move towards abstraction was a great influence on Impressionism, he was also a skilled painter of public subjects, particularly those involving the British Royal Navy.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 - 1851) was a student at the Royal Academy in London in 1789, and exhibited there aged only 15. His early paintings were mainly of landscapes, detailed and realistic, owing much to seventeenth century Dutch art, particularly Willem van de Velde, whome Turner said "made me a painter". In the early nineteenth century he travelled widely in Europe, visiting France, Italy and Switzerland. He made many notable watercolours, oil paintings and sketches there, such as his studies in sublimity of St Gothard's Pass and The Great Fall of Riechenback in Switzerland. These paintings of the Swiss Alps combine geological accuracy with a sense of the landscape's great size and immensity; travels such as these in Switzerland also had a comparable effect on William Wordsworth, particularly recounted in The Prelude.

His subjects include not only scenes of the countryside; he was particularly fond of the sea and ships. He painted military scenes such as the Battle of Trafalgar and the Battle of Waterloo, but also scenes such as the horror of The Slave Ship (men and horses are thrown overboard in a storm) and the sad The Fighting Temeraire, which depicts a sailing ship being pulled by steam tugs to the breakers' yard. In contrast, The Battle of Trafalgar, a royal commission, depicts Admiral Nelson's flagship in great detail, showing its broken mast and Nelson's famous "England expects every man to do his duty" message in flags; Turner returned to retouch the rigging after criticism from naval experts. On land, Rain, Steam, Speed depicts a locomotive of the Great Western Railway as a small shape surrounded by white smoke and blurred golden landscape.

Many of his greatest works consist in pushing representational art as far as it can go away from realism. Works such as the sunrise in Norham Castle, Rain, Steam, Speed, and his watercolours of the burning of the Houses of Parliament in 1834 are more about masses of colour and light than they are accurate depictions of actual scenes and events. His work is frequently about evoking feelings of the sublime, of the world's grandeur and man's insignificance, through its depictions of mountains, the ocean, steam and fire; rather than the smaller-scale emotional affect (melancholy, grief, joy) of the Impressionists and Post-impressionists. His place in history rests ultimately not on his influence or even his originality, but on the power and beauty of his own work.

Notable works:


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