In my most recent visit to London in October 2021, I was fortunate to be able to visit the Tate Britain museum. The museum has an interesting collection, but by far the most interesting feature of the museum is its very fine gallery of paintings by the English painter, J.M.W. Turner. The size and breadth of the museum’s Turner collection affords an opportunity to see how dramatically Turner’s artistic approach changed over the course of his long life. Turner began painting rather conventional landscapes, but ended producing unconventional paintings that appear entirely modern. In any event, as a result of spending a very enjoyable morning viewing his paintings, I became interested in learning more about Turner and his art.
Turner was, of course, one of the most creative and prolific painters of the 19th century. He has been called “one of the most influential figures of modern art.” He also may be one of the era’s most interesting figures, as is well told in Franny Moyle’s new book “Turner: The Extraordinary Life & Momentous Times of J.M.W. Turner.” Moyle’s book does a number of things well, but most importantly the book tracks and explains the way that over his long life, Turner went from being a classically trained, purely representational painter to a more expressionistic painters whose images approached the abstract.
Turner’s life as an artist had an unlikely beginning. Turner was born in 1775, the son of a barber and wig-maker in Covent Garden. He began to draw at an early age, and his precocious talent was immediately recognized. Even when Turner was a small child, his father was selling his son’s drawings from his shop window. Turner was admitted as a student at the Royal Academy when he as only 14, and he was only 15 when he exhibited his first painting there.
Turner was commercially successful from the very beginning. By the time he was 26, Turner was, as Moyle puts it, already recognized as “one of the most ambitious, inventive, technically brilliant and popular artists of his time.” His early success was due to the popularity of his landscape scenes depicting the English (and Welsh and Scottish) countryside.
Turner also had early success with his seascapes, starting with his first exhibited oil painting (his prior exhibited works had all been watercolors), Fisherman at Sea, which he painted when he was just 21. The painting “bedazzled” his fellow artists and critics alike for its creative combination of observational detail and imagination.
Turner’s early success and artistic reputation allowed him room to experiment. His emphasis on pictorial renderings in his early works shifted toward more emotive and dramatic expression; he also developed a more striking individuality as a painter. Through creative experimentation, he hit upon color techniques that gave his works an unprecedented luminosity. He also increasingly strove to give his paintings a narrative force. As Moyle puts it, “by encouraging a sense of the moment, of experience, he is inviting a genuine reaction to the painting itself.”
As Turner adopted much looser brushstrokes for his application of paint to canvas, many of his paintings took on a misty, indistinct air. Many viewers at the time expressed concerns that his works looked unfinished, which gave ample ammunition to his detractors, who became increasingly more numerous as his painting technique became more and more experimental. Even when Turner was just in his early 30s, naysayers began to circulate rumors of insanity (an accusation that was to dog him for the rest of his life – and, in fact, beyond, as his heirs challenged his will on the grounds of insanity).
In his later works, Turner began to “cut loose from straight depiction of reality,” and increasingly emphasized his “response rather than the subject itself.” Turner increasingly placed imagination over observation. As Moyle puts it, in the last 20 years of his life, Turner “threw caution to the wind’ and “took a course that no other artist had the courage to take.”
As his work became increasingly expressionistic and abstract, his many critics became increasingly harsh; one artistic peer said that his paintings “always look as if painted by a man who was born without hands … they are the works of a savage.”
Turner’s reputation was resuscitated to a certain extent by the laudatory essays of John Ruskin, who was to go on the become the greatest art critic of the 19th Century. Ruskin was the first to identify Turner as a “modern” painter, and to champion Turner’s imaginative approach to the subjects of his art. Ruskin, Moyle writes, “saw the visual poetry that Turner had wrought, he saw within the scenes depicted the evocation of dreamworlds and spiritual places.”
One particular way in which Turner was both entirely original and undeniably “modern” was in his recognition of advancing industrial technology as an appropriate subject for artistic expression. Even in his early paintings, Turner showed an appreciation for industry; many of his landscape watercolors incorporate images of mills, kilns, weirs, and quarries. In his later works, Turner sought to incorporate the discoveries and technological advances of the 19th century. In his depictions of technology, Turner evokes an air of “fascination and marvel” – Turner felt and asks us to feel the “march of progress.” His paintings of technology are among his most vivid works.
Though Turner was not always fully appreciated in his own time, later artists acknowledged their debt to him. His is said to have served as an inspiration for Impressionist artists, such as, for example, Claude Monet, who was introduced to Turner’s work in 1870. He also influenced the American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Turner’s influence would last well into the 20th Century; the Abstract Expressionist artist Mark Rothko is said to have quipped, “This man Turner, he learned a lot from me.”
Alas, while Turner’s artistic legacy lives on, many of his most colorful works have started to fade. Turner’s willingness to experiment in order to obtain the desired effect has turned out to have come at the cost of the physical durability of many of his works. For me, the fragility of Turner’s work merely heightens my desire to see them and to try to appreciate them.
The Clore Gallery at the Tate Britain Museum has the world’s largest collection paintings by Turner, and if you are in London, it is well worth it to spend a morning surveying Turner’s works. If you can’t travel that far, then come to Cleveland — Turner’s The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (depicted above) is part of the permanent collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art (though presently on loan to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, for a temporary Turner exhibition).
If you just don’t want to travel, then track down a copy of Moyle’s biography. It is an enjoyably written account of an interesting, creative, original man whose work in so many ways foreshadowed 20th century art.