William Turner, English Romantic Landscape Painter

turner snow storm hannibal crossing the alps
"Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps" (1812). Yorck Project / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

William Turner (April 23, 1775 - December 19, 1851) is known for his expressive, romantic landscape paintings that often show the power of nature over man. His work had a significant impact on the later impressionist movement.

Fast Facts: William Turner

  • Full Name: Joseph Mallord William Turner
  • Also Known As: J.M.W. Turner
  • Occupation: Painter
  • Born: April 23, 1775 in London, England
  • Died: December 19, 1851 in Chelsea, England
  • Children: Evalina Dupois and Georgiana Thompson
  • Selected Works: "Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps" (1812), "The Burning of the Houses of Parliament" (1834), "Rain, Steam and Speed - the Great Western Railway" (1844)
  • Notable Quote: "My business is to paint what I see, not what I know is there."

Child Prodigy

Born into a modest family, the son of a barber and wigmaker and his wife who came from a family of butchers, William Turner was a child prodigy. At age ten, relatives sent him to live with an uncle along the banks of the Thames River due to his mother's mental instability. There, he attended school and began creating drawings that his father exhibited and sold for a few shillings apiece.

Much of Turner's earliest work was studies he executed for architects such as Thomas Hardwick, designer of a series of London churches, and James Wyatt, creator of the Pantheon in Oxford Street, London.

At age 14, Turner began his studies at the Royal Academy of Art. His first watercolor, "A View of the Archbishop's Palace, Lambeth" appeared in the Royal Academy's summer exhibition of 1790 when Turner was only 15. One of his first paintings to signal what was to come later in depictions of threatening weather was "The Rising Squall - Hot Wells from St. Vincent's Rock Bristol" in 1793.

william turner self portrait
"Self-Portrait" (1799). Hulton Fine Art Collection / Getty Images

The young William Turner began a pattern of traveling through England and Wales in the summer and painting in the winter. He exhibited his first oil painting, "Fisherman at Sea," at the Royal Academy in 1796. It was a moonlit scene quite popular at the time.

Early Career

At age 24, in 1799, colleagues elected William Turner to be an associate of the Royal Academy of Art. He was already financially successful through sales of his work and moved to a more spacious home in London that he shared with the marine painter J.T. Serres. In 1804, Turner opened his own gallery to show his work.

Turner's traveling also expanded during the period. In 1802, he traveled to the European continent and visited France and Switzerland. One product of the trip was the painting "Calais Pier with French Poissards Preparing for Sea" finished in 1803. It featured stormy seas that soon became a trademark of Turner's most memorable work.

turner calais pier
"Calais Pier with French Poissards Preparing for Sea" (1803). Hulton Fine Art Collection / Getty Images

One of Turner's favorite travel destinations within England was Otley, Yorkshire. When he painted the epic "Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps" in 1812, the stormy skies surrounding the army of Hannibal, Rome's greatest enemy, were reportedly influenced by a storm Turner observed while staying in Otley. The dramatic depiction of light and atmospheric effects in the painting influenced future impressionists, including Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro.

Mature Period

The Napoleonic Wars that raged in the European continent disrupted Turner's travel plans. However, when they ended in 1815, he was able to travel to the continent once again. In the summer of 1819, he visited Italy for the first time and stopped in Rome, Naples, Florence, and Venice. One of the key works inspired by these travels was a depiction of "The Grand Canal, Venice," which included a more expansive color range.

Turner also had an interest in poetry and the works of Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, and John Milton. When he exhibited the 1840 piece "Slave Ship" at the Royal Academy, he included excerpts of his poetry with the painting.

In 1834, a fiery inferno engulfed the British Houses of Parliament and burnt for hours while London residents watched in horror. Turner made sketches, watercolors and oil paintings of the terrible event viewing it from the banks of the Thames River. The blend of colors magnificently depicts the light and heat of the blaze. Turner's rendering of the awesome power of the fire matched his interest in the overwhelming forces of nature facing the relative weakness of man.

turner burning of the houses of parliament
"The Burning of the Houses of Parliament" (1834). Heritage Images / Getty Images

Later Life and Work

As Turner advanced in age, he became more and more eccentric. He had few close confidants other than his father, who lived with him for 30 years and worked as a studio assistant. Following his father's death in 1829, Turner battled with severe depression. Although he was never married, historians believe he was the father of two daughters, Evalina Dupois and Georgiana Thompson. Following the death of Sophia Booth's second husband, Turner lived for nearly 20 years as "Mr. Booth" at her home in Chelsea.

Late in his career, Turner's paintings focused more and more on the impact of color and light. Often the key elements of the picture are rendered in hazy outlines with most of the painting taken up by large sections that depict mood instead of the actual form. The painting "Rain, Steam and Speed - The Great Western Railway" from 1844 is an excellent example of this style. The most detailed element of the work is the smokestack of the train, but most of the painting is given to blurred atmosphere that helps convey the idea of a train speeding along a modern bridge near London. Although these paintings forecast the innovations of impressionist painters, contemporaries criticized Turner's lack of detail.

william turner rain steam speed
"Rain, Steam and Speed - the Great Western Railway" (1844). Hulton Archive / Getty Images

William Turner died of cholera on December 19, 1851. As one of the most prominent of English artists, he was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral.

Legacy

William Turner left his fortune to create a charity for impoverished artists. He bequeathed his paintings to the National Gallery of Art. Relatives fought the gift of the artist's fortune and won back much of his wealth through the courts. However, the paintings became the permanent property of England through the "Turner Bequest." In 1984, the Tate Britain museum created the prestigious Turner Prize art award presented annually to a prominent visual artist to honor William Turner's memory.

Turner's impressionistic renderings of the impact of nature on man reverberated through the art world for more than a century. He not only influenced impressionists like Claude Monet, but also later abstract painters like Mark Rothko. Many art historians believe that much of Turner's work was far ahead of his time.

Sources

  • Moyle, Franny. Turner: The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J.M.W. Turner. Penguin Press, 2016.
  • Wilton, Andrew. Turner in His Time. Thames and Hudson, 2007.