Artists in 60 Seconds: J. M. W. Turner

© Philadelphia Museum of Art; used with permission
Joseph Mallord William Turner (British, 1775-1851). The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834, 1835. Oil on canvas. 36 1/2 x 48 1/2 in. (92.7 x 123.2 cm). The John Howard McFadden Collection, 1928. © Philadelphia Museum of Art

Movement, Style, School or Type of Art:

Romanticism

Turner was absolutely among the artists we now classify as Romantics, but he had one foot squarely in what would come to be known as Impressionism. It became routine for him, during his lifetime, to be lampooned by critics for his "unintelligible chaos of color," "yellow fever" and seas that looked " ... like soap and chalk." (Thank goodness neither Turner nor the Impressionists who so admired his work cared much about the opinions of art critics.)

Date and Place of Birth:

April 23, 1775, Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London, England

There is no record of Turner's actual date of birth, which was sometime between late April and early May of 1775. The artist himself chose April 23 as the best candidate, possibly because it is also St. George's Day (patron saint of England, among many other places and organizations) and the birthday of William Shakespeare.

(In case you were wondering, "J. M. W." stands for "Joseph Mallord William," which is quite a mouthful and shines a rather helpful, thoughtful light on the much shorter "J. M. W.")

Life:

The son of a wig-maker and his mentally unstable spouse, young Turner spent little time in his parents' home and much with various relatives. At age 14, his intellect, precocious talent for drawing and (understandably) high ambitions to enjoy a comfortable life led him to the Royal Academy Schools, where his first exhibition was held in 1790.

Though all of his early works were watercolor landscapes, he was painting in oils by 1796 and became a full member of the Royal Academy in 1802.

Having been trained academically, Turner seemed to spend the rest of his life developing an ever more loose style. He relentlessly studied nature and light (often traveling abroad to do so) and kept boiling these down to their most basic forms.

He had a phenomenal output of drawings and paintings, and was not always keen to sell these. (He was known to track down and repurchase previously sold works.) Upon his death, he left nearly 30,000 pieces of his work to the British Nation.

We know next to nothing about Turner's personal life as he guarded his privacy and was nearly anti-social. Though he never married, he did have mistresses and almost certainly fathered children. The few people to enjoy close relationships with him were mainly fellow Academians with whom he fished. Conversely, he was an astute businessman who understood a public persona needed to be maintained, in order for Turner, the Artist, to continue to command both his price and pick of commissions.

Little can be said of J.M.W. Turner that hasn't already been said elsewhere and at length. His reputation as one of the, if not the, most important British painters - ever - is both deserved and justifiable. Landscape and maritime art were accorded respect due almost singlehandedly to his work. He remains a towering figure in British art (more popular than ever, 150+ years after his death) and, in retrospect, a visionary who bridged the gap between "traditional" art and Modernism.

Important Works:

  • Calais Pier, 1803
  • The Grand Canal, Venice, 1835
  • The Fighting 'Teméraire' tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838
  • Snow Storm: Steam-boat off a Harbour's Mouth, 1842
  • Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway, 1844

See pictures of J. M. W. Turner's work in the Special Exhibition Gallery .

Date and Place of Death:

December 19, 1851, Chelsea (now in London), England

Also Known As:

  • "The painter of light"
  • "The great pyrotechnist"

Quotes From J. M. W. Turner:

  • "If I could find anything blacker than black, I'd use it."
  • "Painting is a strange business."
  • " ... my job is to draw what I see, not what I know." - Part of his explanation as to why his painted ships had no portholes.
  • "You should tell him that indistinctness is my forte." - Turner's reply upon hearing that collector James Lenox had complained that the painting Fingal's Cave, purchased by Lenox through a broker, was "indistinct."

    Sources and Further Reading

    • Lindsay, Jack. Turner: The Man and His Art.
      London : Franklin Watts, 1986.
      Buy direct
    • Powell, Cecilia. "Turner, Joseph Mallord William"
      The Oxford Companion to Western Art.
      Ed. Hugh Brigstocke. Oxford University Press, 2001.
      Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press, 9 September 2005.
    • Shanes, Eric. Turner: The Life and Masterworks.
      London : Parkstone Press, 2004.
      Buy direct
    • Wilton, Andrew. "Turner, J. M. W."
      Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press, 9 September 2005.
    • Read a review of Grove Art Online.

    Go to Artist Profiles: Names beginning with "T" or Artist Profiles: Main Index