Joseph Mallord William Turner

Joseph Mallord William Turner

British Painter

Born: April 23, 1775 - Covent Garden, London, England
Died: December 19, 1851 - Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, England
"My job is to draw what I see, not what I know."
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J.M.W. Turner Signature
"If I could find anything blacker than black, I'd use it."
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Joseph Mallord William Turner
"Turner has always been a key figure for me." "When you look at a Turner painting, you can sort of drift into it - and that drifting allows the painting to hold you. It takes time - it's not an instant, it's not a selfie, but something that has a process within it. And that's interesting. Turner made something so abstract that he must have trusted the people who looked at the painting to finish the story off. I think this trust is amazing."
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Olafur Eliasson Signature
"[Turner] paints now as if his brains and imagination were mixed upon his palette with soap suds and lather; one must be born again to understand his pictures."
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William Beckford, early patron
"[Turner] painted with tinted steam."
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John Constable Signature
"I found in him a somewhat eccentric, keen-mannered, matter-of-fact, English-minded gentleman: good-natured evidently, bad-tempered evidently, hating humbug of all sorts, shrewd, perhaps a little selfish, highly intellectual, the powers of his mind not brought out with any delight in their manifestation, or intention of display, but flashing out occasionally in a word or a look."
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John Ruskin about Turner
"Unfortunately I met Turner at the Academy a night or two after I received this letter; and he asked me if I had heard from Mr. Lennox. I was obliged to say 'yes.' 'Well, and how does he like the picture?' 'He thinks it indistinct.' 'You should tell him,' he replied, 'that indistinctness is my forte."
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John Ruskin about Turner
"The man must be loved for his works; for his person is not striking nor his conversation brilliant."
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Edward Dayes, Topographical artist
"What a red rag is to a bull, Turner's "Slave Ship" was to me, before I studied art. Mr. Ruskin is educated in art up to a point where that picture throws him into as mad an ecstasy of pleasure as it used to throw me into one of rage, last year, when I was ignorant. His cultivation enables him - and me, now - to see water in that glaring yellow mud, and natural effects in those lurid explosions of mixed smoke and flame, and crimson sunset glories; it reconciles him - and me, now - to the floating of iron cable-chains and other unfloatable things; it reconciles us to fishes swimming around on top of the mud - I mean the water. The most of the picture is a manifest impossibility - that is to say, a lie; and only rigid cultivation can enable a man to find truth in a lie. But it enabled Mr. Ruskin to do it, and it has enabled me to do it, and I am thankful for it."
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Mark Twain

Summary of Joseph Mallord William Turner

Turner took classical genres and scenes - the stately landscape in well-designed compositions and historical events writ large - and infused them with a new dynamic in painting. He reflected on the increasing importance of individual experience in the era of the Enlightenment, where the perceptions of human beings led to exalted personal moments and sublime interactions with nature. Through this dedication to rendering heightened states of consciousness and being, he helped define the cross-disciplinary artistic movement of Romanticism, setting the stage for later developments in painting subjective experiences that would lead to Impressionism. In some of his later works especially, Turner responded to the arrival of the modern era by making the contraptions of human invention powerfully, sometimes threateningly present.


  • Striving for greater subjective effects, he ignored and even exploded the precise rendering of details and static scenes that previous generations' masters and his peers still pursued. Instead he developed painterly effects to render perceptions from closely observed nature, resulting in swirling clouds of varied light and bold arrays of color dabbed in oil. Many of these techniques in paint to evoke sensations of the "Sublime" would become the substance and subject matter of the generation of painters working in Abstract Expressionism.
  • The subjects chosen for many of his paintings emphasized the power of nature in a way that had not previously been depicted - making the human figure and all that civilization had built seem minuscule and fragile in comparison.
  • Turner helped establish landscape painting - and especially its water-based corollary, seascapes - as an artistic genre for greater respect and exploration, compared to what had existed before or during his own time.
  • Turner also incorporated novel motifs from the modern industrial era into his paintings - steamships and railway trains figuring prominently - foreshadowing a recurrent fascination with these elements of modern life that would figure in later generations of visual artists - from the Futurists, muralists such as Diego Rivera to contemporary artists such as Matthew Barney.

Biography of Joseph Mallord William Turner

Joseph Mallord William Turner Photo

Joseph Mallord William Turner's actual birthdate is unconfirmed, but he was baptized on May 14, 1775. His father, William Turner was a barber and wig maker and his mother, Mary Marshall, came from a family of butchers. His younger sister, Mary Ann, was born in September 1778, but died when she was 5 years old.

Important Art by Joseph Mallord William Turner

Dutch Boats in a Gale ('The Bridgewater Sea Piece') (1801)

Dutch Boats in a Gale was commissioned by the third Duke of Bridgewater as a companion piece for a 17th-century seascape, Ships on a Stormy Sea by Willem van de Velde the Younger. In this painting, Turner shows ominous clouds and a stormy sea with boats struggling on the rough water. In contrast to the companion piece, Turner's boats look doomed to collide, conveying a sense of danger. This piece from 1801 is evidence of the influence of Dutch painters on Turner's early work but already with the sort of turbulence featured in it that became one of Turner's hallmarks.

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (1812)

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (1812)

In this painting, Turner depicts Hannibal's soldiers in their struggle to cross the Alps in 218BC. There is a curved arch of black storm clouds hovering over the soldiers with a golden sun peeking through the grayness. In the foreground, the soldiers are fighting local tribes in the murky darkness, while ahead in the distance the plains of Italy are bathed in sunlight. At the right is an avalanche of snow descending down the mountain. Hannibal's location is not clear, but he may be riding the elephant barely visible in the distance. Turner created this painting during the Napoleonic Wars between Britain and France. He saw parallels between Hannibal and Napoleon, and this painting is his response to Jacques-Louis David's portrait of Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801-1805). This work is the first painting where Turner uses a swirling vortex of wind, rain, snow and clouds that he returned to often in later works, such as Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth (1842). His ongoing investigations of light and atmosphere greatly influenced future Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, such as Monet and Pissarro.

The Burning of the Houses of Parliament (1834-35)

The Burning of the Houses of Parliament (1834-35)

In 1834 a fire engulfed the Houses of Parliament and burned for hours while Londoners watched the horrifying event. Turner made a series of sketches, watercolors, and oil paintings of the spectacle from the viewpoint of the Thames River. This watercolor and gouache on paper shows a closer view of the fire and those gathered to watch. Turner uses color to convey the magnificent light and heat: as much the subject of the painting, as the event of the burning building itself. This favoring of the elemental aspects of the conflagration, as well as the fire itself, embodies one of Turner's favored themes as well: the puniness and ephemerality of man's efforts in the face of nature.

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Joseph Mallord William Turner Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 15 Jan 2016. Updated and modified regularly
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