Lines and Colors art blog

J.W.M. Turner
Joseph Mallord William Turner is often mentioned in the same breath as John Constable, as they were the two preeminent English landscape painters of the Romantic era, and two of the most important landscape painters period.

In the canons of modern art criticism, Turner is considered more important. His search for atmospheric effects and the emotional drama of color, which led to dramatic canvasses roiling with waves and clouds, are seen as a precursor to Impressionism and Modernism, and we all know that post WWII Modernism is the pinnacle of artistic achievement to which the previous 2000 years were a mere warm-up (he said, while rolling his eyes and making a rude gesture).

I like Turner; his work can be striking, dramatic, and dazzling; but I have to say that I find Constable just as interesting, more in fact; and I find more powerful antecedents to Impressionism in Courbet and, in particular, Corot (though Turner certainly set the stage for Whistler’s nocturnes). I just don’t see Turner as quite the turning point (if you’ll excuse the phrase) in the history of art that he gets credit for in the standard texts.

It will be interesting to see what Simon Schama has to say in tonight’s Power of Art (10pm on many PBS stations here in the U.S.), though somehow I think he will take the Modernist view of assigning Turner pivotal importance in the path to Modernism.

It might be helpful to look at Turner’s sources and influences. Constable apparently wasn’t one of them; reportedly Constable was interested in Turner’s work, but not the other way around (though there’s very little influence passed in either direction between them). You can see precedent for Turner’s great washes of sky and color in Claude Lorrain’s volumetric spaces bathed in light. Both Turner and Constable were probably influenced by Gainsborough, and perhaps even Caspar David Friederich.

Turner’s early work was richly detailed, his later paintings washed in color. In the middle the two blended, as in the history painting above, Dido Building Carthage, which I’ll offer in contrast to Slave Traders Throwing the Dead and Dying into the Sea – The Typhoon Approaches, the painting Schama will be focusing on.

Turner considered Dido Building Carthage his greatest work, and reportedly indicated in the first draft of his will that he wanted to be wrapped in the canvas when he was buried. He eventually thought better of that and donated the work to the National Gallery in London, apparently with the stipulation that it be displayed next to a seascape by Claude Lorrain that he found particularly inspiring.


5 responses to “J.M.W. Turner”

  1. I think that his innovation and the concepts and ideas that truly interested him show much more in his sketchbooks – these are so free and contemporary they are just incredible. They really look as if they were done today.

    The grand paintings still fit with the concerns and ethos of the day, the erudite subject matter etc – but incorporate some of the elements of the sketch books, not so freely though 🙁 .

    I think paintings like the Fighting Temeraire, the barn door one (title forgotten!) and Wind Steam and Speed are truer to his sketchbooks and true interests – the painting of light and atmosphere/weather.

  2. David J.P.Pierce Jones Avatar
    David J.P.Pierce Jones

    We know Turner was the Father of Impressionism, but wasn’t he also the first Surreallist? Has noone else noticed the word “Love” hidden in Oberwesel? Go and take a look in Washington!

  3. Michael Sims Avatar
    Michael Sims

    In his Turner: A Wonderful Range of Mind, the art historian John Gage successfully locates Turner and his art in the historically accurate milieu of his times rather than than as primarily a nascent abstract expressionist. No doubt Turner would be as befuddled with what has been made of his art as Pater would be over what has become of his “All art aspires to the condition of music.”

  4. Turner was an evolving artist, an innovator; I think that’s clear from a review of his whole opus. In that way like most artists.

    Admittedly, I am a fan of Turner and there is clearly an evolution in his painting styles but I wouldn’t go so far as to describe him as eventually becoming a Surrealist, which, after all, had a philosophical foundation largely influenced by the colossal disaster of WWI.

    He is an awesome master of color used for impressionistic effect and emotion; in my view the very best – in the landscape environment. The French Impressionists of course personalized it all.

  5. Topsy Turner Avatar
    Topsy Turner

    Awesome painting by the master, Turner has since been chosen to appear on the £20 notes in 2020, I have enclosed comment for fans of the artist:
    The genius ‘Painter of Light’ JMW Turner is a brilliant choice, and as I informed the Bank of England, I have links to the artist and I also have an ancestor who is the son of a draftsman called Sir Percivall Pott, Queen Victoria’s surgeon who lived at the site of the Bank of England at Threadneedle Street. Our relative, Miss Constance Pott, the pioneering graphic designer and etcher produced a picture titled New Bank of England. There is much more family history in the book TURNER TREES – link to Facebook page can be found below: