Joseph Mallord William Turner: "Calais Pier"

Joseph Mallord William Turner: "Calais Pier: an English packet boat arriving ", 1803. London, Tate Gallery

Joseph Mallord William Turner: “Snowstorm"

Joseph Mallord William Turner: "Snowstorm: Hannibal and his Army crossing the Alps " (1812, London , Tate Gallery)


In April 1815, the eruptions of Mount Tambora, in Indonesia, ejected to the atmosphere aproximately 100 cubic kms. of ashes, being the most violent eruption in modern times. The following year, 1816, became known as "The year without a summer" due to the extreme weather conditions and the persistent fogs caused by the eruption. Some historians believe that this altered climate could be an inspiration for many works by Joseph Mallord WilliamTurner


Mount Tambora, in Indonesia

Mount Tambora, in Indonesia, with the spectacular crater caused by the 1815 eruption (photo: NASA)

Joseph Mallord William Turner: "Ulysses deriding Polyphemus – Homer's Odyssey”

Joseph Mallord William Turner: Ulysses deriding Polyphemus - Homer's Odyssey" (1829, London, Tate Gallery)

Joseph Mallord William Turner: "Norham Castle : sunrise”

Joseph Mallord William Turner: Norham Castle: sunrise" (c.1835-40, London , Tate Gallery)

Joseph Mallord William Turner: "The fire of the House of Lords"

Joseph Mallord William Turner: "The fire of the House of Lords and the Commons of October 16th, 1834", 1835. Cleveland Museum of Art

Joseph Mallord William Turner: "Venice"

Joseph Mallord William Turner: "Venice from the portal of Santa Maria della Salute " (1835, New York , Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Joseph Mallord William Turner: "the fighting Teméraire"

Joseph Mallord William Turner: "The fighting Teméraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up" (1839, London , National Gallery)

Joseph Mallord William Turner: "Peace – Burial at sea”

Joseph Mallord William Turner: Peace - Burial at sea" (1842, London , Tate Gallery)

Joseph Mallord William Turner: "Rain, steam and speed"

Joseph Mallord William Turner: "Rain, steam and speed". 1844 - Londres, National Gallery

Joseph Mallord William Turner: "Sunrise with sea monsters"

Joseph Mallord William Turner: "Sunrise with sea monsters". c.1845 - London, Tate Gallery

Joseph Mallord William Turner: "Yacht approaching the coast”

Joseph Mallord William Turner: Yacht approaching the coast" (c.1845-50, London, Tate Gallery)


The life and works of Joseph Mallord William Turner

by G. Fernández -

The popular confusion between genius and madness is clearer than ever in the biography of Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851). Whereas he had been at his beginnings an academic painter, Turner was slowly but unstoppably evolving towards a free, atmospheric style, sometimes even outlining the abstraction, which was misunderstood and rejected by the same critics who had admired him for decades. The apparent chaos that filled his last works was criticized for being considered the work of a lunatic man. It is said that even Queen Victoria refused to bestow a knighthood on him - an honour given to many less important painters- because she considered that Mister Turner was simply mad.

In a certain sense, it was quite easy to label Turner as "mad", considering his maternal precedent: his mother spent the last 4 years of her life confined in a mental hospital. In addition, William Turner himself spent his last years in Chelsea, with a woman named Sophia Boot, pretending to be a retired Admiral. But, in fact, the "chaos" that can be found in Turner's late works is actually the result of a complex artistic evolution in which the painter is several decades ahead of any other artist of his generation. Therefore, the lack of understanding which Turner suffered in his life should not be surprising.

It is told that, during an exhibition at the Royal Academy, a piece of canvas from a Turner painting fell to the ground, and the painter played down the importance of the incident arguing that "the only important thing is making an impression". It is easy to imagine the surprise that this idea could have caused in the serious Academy. Writer John Ruskin -who was a close friend of the painter- told that during an exhibition, once again, at the Academy, an Art critic reproached Turner that he had not painted the ship's portholes in one of his paintings. Turner explained the critic that, at the moment in which the picture was painted, the ships were against the light and, therefore, the portholes were not visible. Annoyed, the critic argued: "yes, but you know that the ships have portholes", to which Turner replied: "Yes, but I paint what I see, not what I know". Indeed, the direct contemplation of objects and atmospheric phenomena had a pivotal importance in the genesis of his paintings. But -as Ruskin pointed- the result of this direct contemplation was not an exact, precise representation of the observed thing, but a subjective impression that those objects or phenomena caused in the painter's mind


A precocious painter and a brilliant student, Joseph Mallord William Turner started his studies at the Royal Academy of London, with masters like Sir Joshua Reynolds or Paul Sandby. From the beginning, his paintings and watercolours were admired and received positive critics. For this reason, Turner soon found himself in an enviable economic situation, which allowed him to make numerous trips in England and Wales, taking numerous sketches of places and monuments, just before visiting France and Switzerland, which allowed him to increase his pictorial universe studying masterworks by great old masters like Rembrandt, Albert Cuyp, and, of course, Claude Lorrain. The influence of the French master is easily identifiable in Turner's works from this period, such as his scenes of "The Plagues of Egypt" (1800) and the later "Sun rising through vapour" (1807, National Gallery of London)

It is told that one day Turner was at the home of his patron Walter Fawkes in Farnley Hall, Yorkshire , when a sudden thunderstorm interrupted the quiet afternoon. Quickly, Turner began to make sketches of the clouds and the hard rain, telling Fawkes: "In two years, you will see these sketches transformed into a painting called 'Hannibal crossing the Alps'". In 1812, Turner displayed at the Royal Academy his most ambitious early work, the epic "Hannibal and his Army crossing the Alps" (1812, London, Tate Gallery)

The success of this painting at the Royal Academy encouraged Turner to paint other historical scenes of similar thematic, such as the "Dido building Carthage" (1815, London, National Gallery) or "The decline of the Carthaginian empire" (1817, London, Tate Gallery)


Turner's fame was growing quickly. "Turner would find in Rome new and suitable material for his genius", Sir Thomas Lawrence wrote in 1819. Finally, in August of that same year, Turner arrived in Italy.

Turner's open and perceptive mind found there a new world of colours, lights and atmospheres, which he transferred to the canvases after his return to England. He visited Torino, Milano, Venice and Naples; and studied works by great masters like Titian, Tintoretto or Raphael. He also met contemporary artists such as Antonio Canova. Turner returned to England in February 1820. The images and memories from Italy would mark his pictorial production in the following years, as we can see in works like "The Roman Forum" (1826, London, Tate Gallery) or his personal tribute to Raphael, the "Rome, seen from the Vatican, Raphael with Fornarina prepares the pictures for the decoration of the lodges" painted in the same year of his return to England (London, Tate Gallery).


Turner made another trip to Italy in 1828, making numerous outdoor sketches that would have their reflection in a sensational picture painted in England the following year: the " Ulysses deriding Polyphemus - Homer's Odyssey" (1829, London, Tate Gallery) was described by Ruskin as "the central painting in Turner's artistic production", and, in a certain sense, the description can be very valid. In effect, in the " Ulysses ", the mythological subject (Ulysses defeated the Polyphemus -a Cyclops- putting out his giant's eye with a burning stake) is little more than an excuse to represent the furious strength of the nature. The picture surprised for its shining colours, and received more negative than positive critics in the Royal Academy exhibition in 1829.

In the 1830s, Turner's style was becoming more and free, with the use of a predominantly clear palette. The culmination of all this process is the sublime " Norham Castle : sunrise " (c.1835-40, London , Tate Gallery), in where almost all recognizable form is diluted by the omnipresent sunrise's light. With its technical perfection and its extraordinarily clear palette, the painting resembles more to a watercolour than to a painting on canvas.

The fire of the House of Lords and Commons of October 1834 allowed Turner to created a series of sketches that would derive in two paintings about this incident (now in Cleveland and Philadelphia Museums) in which Turner is specially interested in the reflected image of the fire in the Thames river, as a contrast between the fire and the water. These views impressed Monet when visiting London several decades later, and inspired him to create a series of paintings depicting the Houses of Parliament.

During these years, Turner made three trips to Venice , being the last of them - in 1840 - the most prolific of his entire career. In the Italian city Turner painted some of his oil and watercolour masterpieces. In " Venice from the portal of Santa Maria della Salute " (1835, New York , Metropolitan Museum of Art) Turner slightly varies the original landscape (he adds a nonexistent building to the composition) to reflect with more emphasis the Venetian beauty.

In April 2006, one of these Venetians views painted by Turner, "Giudecca, La Donna della Salute and San Giorgio", an oil on canvas painted during his last trip to Venice, was auctioned in Christie's New York for more than $35 million.


Although William Turner was more -much more- than a simple seascape painter, it would be absurd not to recognize that many of his greatest achievements were obtained in the depiction of the sea and the marine elements. In these subjects, his greatest masterpiece is with no doubt "The fighting Teméraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up" (1839, London, National Gallery). Deliberately, and without being a false move, the "dissolution of forms" effect appreciable in previous paintings (like the already mentioned "Norham Castle") is not so evident here, allowing a better understanding of the the painting's narrative.

Audacious and technically perfect, Turner's masterpiece is an unusual representation of a royal ship, normally depicted in its maximum splendour as Fitz Hugh Lane did in his seascapes (see number 10), but here Turner tributed the brave Temeraire depicting its last trip before being scrapped. This supreme work was elected as the best painting in England in a poll organized by the National Gallery of London in 2005. Certainly, very few paintings can be compared with this. One of them is "Peace - Burial at sea" (1842, London , Tate Gallery), created to the memory of painter Sir David Wilkie.


The "Ulysses deriding Polyphemus" can be considered the "pivotal picture" of Turner's oeuvre. But the culmination of it, the pinnacle of Turner's powers, and one of the greatest masterpieces of the history of Art, is, with no doubt, "Rain, steam and speed - The Great Western Railway" (1844, London , National Gallery)

The picture is a sensational conclusion to Turner's investigations about the representation of light and atmospheric effects in painting, which were developed during his time as professor at the Royal Academy, where Turner learned Newton and Goethe's theories about light and colour. In this painting, the authentic protagonist, even ahead of the dynamical locomotive, is the changing English atmosphere, an effect increased by the steam caused by the powerful machinery. Many art critics -and later many impressionist painters- felt a deep fascination for this quick locomotive. When this painting was first exhibited in 1844, a critic wrote: “a train advances towards you, a train that really moves at 50 miles per hour, and that the reader would do well to see before it leaves the picture...”.


We have already commented that the "dissolution of forms" appreciable many of Turner's last works was interpreted by numerous critics as the beginning of a dementia. Even Ruskin was quite disturbed by these works by Turner, who was sometimes forced to place nails in the frames to indicate the top and the bottom of the canvas.

"Sunrise with sea monsters" (1845, London, Tate Gallery) is one of the best examples of this last period of his career. The forms of the sea monsters are hardly recognizable in the middle of the omnipresent marine atmosphere. The almost divine quality of the light reflects Turner's theory of considering the Sun as the centre of all life. Something similar happens in "Yacht approaching the coast" (c.1845-50, London, Tate Gallery)

Seriously ill, in October 1851, Turner was forced to stop any artistic activity. On December 19th, 1851, Joseph Mallord William Turner passed away in his house in Chelsea, London, and he was buried in Saint Paul's Cathedral. The main core of his works can be admired today at the Clore Gallery, a wing of the Tate Gallery specially built to exhibit the works of the greatest English painter of all time.

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