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Artist in Profile (Dec ’13): J. M. W. Turner

J. M. W. Turner

J. M. W. Turner self portraitJoseph Mallord William Turner was born on April 23rd 1775 and died on 19th December 1851. He was a multi-faceted artist renowned for his English romantic landscape paintings, water colours and prints. His painting style is said to have been the foundation stone for Impressionism. Turner was quite the controversial figure in his life time but today is hailed as an artist who took landscape painting to unprecedented levels

Life and career

J. M. W. Turner was born in Covent Garden in the centre of London. His father was a wig maker and barber while his mother Mary suffered with mental instability and was committed to an asylum in 1799. It is believed she never recovered from the death of Turner’s young sister Helen in 1786. This turbulent family situation led Turner to be sent to his uncle in Brentford situated on the Thames in West London. Here Turner began to be interested in painting and attended school at Margate in Kent. His father proudly exhibited his drawings in the window of his shop.

Study of a plaster cast of The Belvedere Torso

J. M. W. Turner copied this plaster cast of a classical sculpture at the Royal Academy Schools in 1789

In 1789 Turner aged 14 years started at the Royal Academy of Art School and gained acceptance into the Academy a year later. Turner showed great interest in architecture but was advised to continue painting. After just one year of study, one of Turner’s watercolours was accepted for the Summer Exhibition.

Although revered for his oil paintings, Turner was a great master of watercolour landscape painting. He is known as “the painter of light” for the luminescence and life he brought to his work. One of Turner’s famous oil paintings is “The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up” (below right) painted in 1838, which resides in London’s National Gallery. Like many painters, Turner went travelling in Europe and studied for a time at the Louvre in Paris.

J. M. W. Turner became ever more eccentric as he grew older and had few close friends with the exception of his father who he lived with for over thirty years. His father acted as his studio assistant during this time. When his father died in 1829 it had a most profound effect on Turner and he began to suffer with bouts of depression.

The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up

The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up

Turner remained unmarried throughout his life but had two daughters by Sarah Danby although he died in the home of his mistress Sophia Caroline Booth. As he breathed his last in the house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea he is said to have uttered the words “The sun is God”. He was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral at his own request and lies next to fellow painter Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Unlike many artists, Turner’s abilities were recognised early on bringing him financial independence. Therefore he had the freedom to innovate and experiment with different styles and palettes. Turner’s imagination led him to capture natural phenomena such as storms, fog, sunlight and rain. He also was fascinated by the power and violence of the sea and shipwrecks were favourite topics.

The Confluence of the Thames and the MedwayAlthough Turner dealt with the sublime, in his eyes the savagery and grandeur of powerful nature, he did include some humans in his paintings showing affection for humankind but also to expose their vulnerability with the power of nature. For Turner the significance of light was the emanation of the spirit of God and later paintings show the play of light on sea, rivers and lakes with the radiance of fire and sky.

One likely tall tale about the artist is that he lashed himself to a ship’s mast in order to experience first-hand the drama of a storm at sea.

J. M. W. Turner’s Legacy

Turner left behind a small fortune to support “decayed artists”. Part of the bequest went to the Royal Academy of Arts and his, collection of paintings was left to the British nation. Although he wished for a specially built gallery to house the paintings, this never came to pass, although the works do remain together with some exhibitions and loans to other museums and galleries.

Giudecca La Donna Della Salute And San GeorgioJ. M. W. Turner is a painter who is secure in the hearts of the British people and his paintings are loved by many. A BBC public poll voted Turner’s “The Fighting Temeraire” as Britain’s favourite painting. The result of this poll is very appropriate for a maritime nation.

A record was set for one of J. M. W. Turner’s paintings when Christie’s in New York auctioned “Giudecca La Donna Della Salute and SanGiorgio” (right) for $35.8 million. This view of Venice was bought by a casino owner Stephen Wynn.

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