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

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

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

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.

Oil on Canvas - The National Gallery, London

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

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps

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.

Oil on Canvas - Tate Britain, London

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

The Burning of the Houses of Parliament

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.

Watercolor and gouache on paper - Tate Britain

The Fighting Temeraire Tugged To Her Last Berth to Be Broken Up (1839)

The Fighting Temeraire Tugged To Her Last Berth to Be Broken Up

In The Fighting Temeraire, Turner depicts a once powerful and magnificent warship being towed to its final destination to be broken up for scraps. In the painting, the ship appears like a ghost in the background being towed by a small, dark, steam-powered tugboat. The sails of the other vessels in the background form a triangle within a larger triangle of blue sky. Behind the Temeraire, the sun is setting and the moon casts a beam across the river. This painting symbolizes the end of an era, the end of heroic power, and the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Steam-powered vessels were taking the place of the large sailing vessels of the past. It is suggested that the ship may also symbolize Turner himself as he contemplated his accomplishments of the past, his mortality, and saw new artists being recognized. Turner took some liberties in portraying this event, for example the Temeraire did not have its masts intact when it was towed. He wanted to portray her in her former majestic state and so included them in the painting. His revision of details demonstrated a liberation from "just facts" that was an innovation inspiring future modern painters to feel freer in their interpretations of depicted scenes.

Oil on Canvas - The National Gallery, London

Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On) (1840)

Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On)

In this painting, Turner shows a ship in the background moving through a tumultuous sea, and in the foreground, in the ship's wake, dark-skinned bodies with chains on their legs, while hovering nearby are fish and sea creatures looking dangerously ready to devour them. Turner based this painting on a poem that described the Zong, a slave ship caught in a typhoon, and the true story of that ship in 1781, when its captain ordered 133 sick and dying slaves thrown overboard so that he could collect the insurance money. Turner timed the exhibition of this painting to coincide with the meeting of the British Anti-Slavery Society. Although the British Empire had outlawed slavery in 1833, Turner believed slavery should be outlawed throughout the world, and his hope was that Prince Albert would be moved to increase anti-slavery efforts when he viewed the painting. Alongside the painting, Turner displayed lines from his unfinished poem, "Fallacies of Hope":

"Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon's coming.
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying - ne'er heed their chains
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?"

John Ruskin, the first owner of Slave Ship, wrote, "If I were reduced to rest Turner's immortality upon any single work, I should choose this."

Oil on Canvas - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Light and Color (Goethe's Theory) - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis (1843)

Light and Color (Goethe's Theory) - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis

The unusual square shape of this late painting, with even dimensions on all sides, indicates neither the conventional orientation for the genre of either landscape or portraiture, further channeling the subjective experience by focusing the viewer's gaze into the center of a sort of elemental vortex. The primary figures - Moses and a serpent - are represented hazily amid the sort of seemingly formless fields of color and light that critics who were contemporaries of Turner often objected to in his later works. Meanwhile the relative brightness of Turner's palette in this moody work hints at darker aspects that might be apprehended from the Biblical story of redemption after the trial of the flood. This is associated with the sub-title of the piece - where the potential feeling of triumph or relief for those who survive such catastrophes is mixed with an awareness that the same dark forces may produce a new crisis at any time in the future. Turner uses his own treatment of the phenomenon of color and light to represent a version of the Biblical tale as seen through a perceptual filter related to Goethe's psychological and philosophical account of the way humans actually experience color as a phenomenon. Through this combination Turner furthers a Romantic update of both the classical Bible story and the work of Goethe - another exemplar of latter day Classicism and prototypical instigator of Romantic notions - in the generation leading up to Turner's own time.

Oil on Canvas - Tate Gallery, London

Rain, Steam and Speed - The Great Western Railway (1844)

Rain, Steam and Speed - The Great Western Railway

This painting depicts a steam-powered train speeding across a modern bridge away from London. In the distance is an older bridge and in the lower right is a small hare. Some suggest that the hare is not only one of nature's symbols of speed, but that Turner is warning us of the dangers of technology destroying nature in its race toward progress. The only highly detailed section in the painting is the smoke stack of the train, showing Turner's ability to create provocative paintings with very little detail.

Oil on Canvas - National Gallery London

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First published on 15 Jan 2016. Updated and modified regularly
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