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Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851)

( Originally Published 1955 )



Outstanding British landscapist; a great influence on his contemporaries and later on the Impressionist painters of France. Born in London, the son of a barber, Turner showed a precocious talent for drawing. In his teens he earned considerable money by coloring prints for an engraver. He took drawing lessons, made copies in Reynolds' studio and was admitted to the Academy schools. From the age of fifteen on he exhibited at the Royal Academy; by eighteen he had his own studio. He toured the country with Thomas Girtin, sketching picturesque views, ruins and scenes of shipping. Before Turner was twenty printsellers were buying his drawings for reproduction, Artistically he advanced rapidly. His 1799 drawing of Norham Castle, which he considered the beginning of his artistic career, made him an Associate of the Royal Academy, He worked in both watercolors and oils and his reputation began to rival that of the Dutch sea painters. He also gained a reputation for picturesque classical landscapes (i.e., irregularly shaped scenes of nature strewn with ancient ruins) with figures. In 1802 he became a full member of the Royal Academy and made his first foreign tour, visiting France and Switzerland. In 1807 he was appointed Professor of Perspective at the Academy. He took a house with studiogallery to exhibit his own pictures, of which he now sold many, especially marines. Turner did much traveling, making many sketches and studying all the while the effects of sea and sky in every kind of weather. He also studied the way the Old Masters had worked with nature and he reached a deep appreciation of their methods, especially those of Claude and Watteau. He rivaled the former and derived great benefit from the fuzzy delicate manner of the latter.

Turner became increasingly successful, with profitable agreements between himself and various publishers for the reproduction of his works. Some collectors, e.g., Ruskin's father, even specialized in his watercolors. Not only did he ask high prices for the oils, but he now refused to sell the more important ones, saving them for his own collection. From about 1834 on he entered his splendid final phase in which he projected a completely personal and original expression of his experience; but the Academicians and recognized critics were unable to appreciate this development, Ruskin being his only articulate champion. The new development reached its climax around 1840 with such works as The Slave Ship (Boston), in which he moves further along the path of abstracting the forces of nature into a powerful moving symbol. Rather than the literary and more specifically Romantic symbols of earlier works, such as The Falls of the Rhine at Schaffhausen or The Fighting 'Temeraire, the painter now transforms his canvas into a dynamically moving symbol of a force without form, a force such as the power of the sea, the movement of rain, the dynamism of a train, the enveloping character of a fog. It is to the "inner meaning of a -given idea" that works such as the Rain, Steam and Speed, Slave Ship, Whale Ship, Snow Storm, etc., are dedicated. Very prolific as well as successful during his lifetime. Turner left a large estate. His greatest contribution was the symbolic landscape, but he had also performed magnificently in the field of classical and Romantic landscapes and seascapes. His sense of movement and atmosphere mark a full step forward in the development of open-air painting and consequently toward the Impressionism of the 1860's and '70's.



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