J.M.W Turner was a prolific artist of many genres of painting and used both watercolours and oils in order to take his inspiration from the great masters whom he had studied for their various masteries of representing light and colour such as Poussin, of landscape and the picturesque such as Claude and the great Dutch masters of seascape such as Willem Van Der Velde. Through his lifelong affiliation with the Royal Academy, his many European tours as well as his tours around the British Isles, we can gather a change in the perspective of Turner’s painting. We see an artist who initially started his Practice in the Romantic style with his initial interest in Landscape, Architecture and Topography, progress through his tours of Europe and developed understanding of other artists and evolve and push his practice, through the Sublime. In this essay I will discuss how from his early artistic career as a topographer and sketcher, using, initially watercolour to add a little colour to his work, I will chart how through the many genres of art Turner was fascinated with and the inspiration he took from Poetry, he developed his own artistic style, through his techniques used and the boundaries pushed, and one which was to change the course of the art.
J.M.W Turner attended the Royal Academy at the age of Fourteen as a student and through his early years at the RA was to exhibit many watercolours through his early study of Landscape and topography. During those early years the market for watercolours was flourishing and Turner made his first money from this commercial work but what these initial sales alerted Turner to, was his skill of being able to sketch outdoors and then bring back to the studio his notes and sketches to develop there.
Some of Turner’s first Watercolours that were exhibited at the Royal Academy show the interest that he was showing his subject matters ‘He added a romantic and picturesque element to his designs for buildings such as Malmesbury Abbey with its ruin Gothic’ (Lindsay 1985, p.14)
(Malmesbury Abbey. J.M.W. Turner 1791)
During the 1790’s Turner was to tour the country taking his sketch book with him and in 1796 stayed in Brighton studying the sea and it was during this year he entered into the exhibition at the RA his first oil painting Fishermen at Sea. The engraver Bell saw in the work ‘A view of flustered and scurrying fishing-boats in a gale off the needles’ (Lindsay 1985, p.17) David Brown in his Biography of Turner states that ‘it is a marine subject signalling wider ambitions as a painter and his refusal to be typecast as a topographer’ (Brown 2012, p.2)
(Fishermen at sea. J.M.W. Turner 1796)
‘Turner was drawing together a number of influences, and making a break from his water-colours, even the most advanced ones, in the nuances of tone, the subtle and complex range of light and shade, with the moonlight coming down through a cloud on to the heaving mass of water, all the elements held together in the tension of a vortex’ (Lindsay 1985, p.17)
Over the subsequent years Turner had many commissions for topographical water-colours and this allowed him to develop his style and mastery of history painting. In 1800 Turner sold his first history painting ‘An essay in the manner of French painter Nicola Poussin’ (Brown 2012, p.2) The Fifth Plague of Egypt and at the same time he was commissioned to make a companion piece to ‘Rising Gale’ by Willam Van De Velde, ‘Dutch Boats in a Gale’.
The foundation of the sketching society was established for the purpose of mastery of historic Landscape and it was during this establishment of the society that Turner started to realise that he needed to elevate Landscape in order for it gain a higher place in the hierarchy of Painting.
It was during this period that he was to start on Aeneas and the Sybal, Lake Avernus and in doing so was trying to develop the schemes and methods of the classicist Claude ‘He tried to express the light and colour of Italian landscape, however his success was slight, but he embarked on a course that would Beget many of his greatest works’ (Lindsay 1985, p.21)
(Aeneas and the Sybyl, Lake Avernus. J.M.W. Turner. 1799)
Turner was not without criticism in his early years. In 1799 he was elected an Associate at the RA and an Academician in 1802. ‘Turner was recognised as a prodigy who promised to be the outstanding painter of his generation’ (Brown 2012, p.2) In 1804 he opened his own gallery, already having wealthy patrons who bought his work and where he could exhibit smaller water colours than those sent to the RA for exhibition. Turner’s dominance during this period did not go unchallenged. ‘at the Royal Academy he could be bumptious, pushy or rude says Brown in his Biography of Turner and one senior Academician who support Turners election summarised him in 1803 as ‘confident with talent but came to gradually regard him with puzzled incomprehension’ (Brown 2012, p.3)
In 1802, Turner was to embark on his first tour of the Swiss Alps and this was to introduce him to some of the raw natural material for some of his greatest watercolours. ‘He rendered them in subdued colours, quiet unlike the dazzling tints of his later watercolours and perhaps affected by the foreboding visual language of the eighteenth century Sublime’ (Brown 2012, p.6) Now that he had seen Switzerland he could let himself go in mountain views that embodied all the aspects considered necessary for the making of the Sublime (Lindsay 1985, p.38)
Whilst traveling to Switzerland, Turner stopped in Paris and the Louvre, he was fascinated by Poussin and was quoted as saying ‘In Poussin The Israelites gather Manna he saw ‘the grandest system of light and shadow in the collection’ (Lindsay 1985, p.38) we can see from quotes such as these Turners fascination with colour both light and shade and how the masters achieved these skills, Brown in his Biography states that ‘The exhibition watercolours of the Alpine subjects based on his tour of 1802 are a technical tour de force, extraordinarily elaborate yet at the same time austere and grand. (Brown 2012, p.6)
(St Gotthard Road between Amsteg and Wassen. J.M.W Turner. 1803)
During this period, we know that Turner was working on a colour system which he called Historic or Poetic Colours. ‘Colour, he realises, has a function that goes far beyond any naturalistic basis. It produces a dynamic unification, which is at once aesthetic and emotional’ (Lindsay 1985, p.36)
As an Academician in 1802, Turner wanted to enter impressive works to the Exhibition of that year. He sent in two sea-scapes with swirling billows and furious skies and men facing the challenges of the elements and he also sent a further historical landscape, after already submitting the Fifth Plague of Egypt, he submitted the Tenth Plague. ‘In doing paintings such as these Turner was not indulging in mere sensationalism, he wanted to show humanity and nature in all their relations (Lindsay 1985, p.34)
Working in both mediums of Oil and Watercolour, Turner used his techniques of handling watercolour in his development of Oil’s. Like Watercolour, he was to use the natural colour of the paper or canvas used to show through the oils to give highlight or reflections to his subjects ‘The result show a new feeling for naturalism and the cool luminous tonality that earned him the description of white painter’ (Brown 2012, p.6) Turner had a resolve to develop his art in new directions (Lindsay 1985, p.40) developing his skill from his knowledge and appreciation of the old masters.
Once again, Turner was not without criticism from his new approaches to art. George Beaumont, a fashionable arbiter of taste, said of Turner that he ‘debased old masters like Claude Lorrain’(Brown 2012, p.6) and whom was to give him and fellow artists whom painted in a similar style the mantle of ‘White Painters’ because of their pastel colours and translucent paint. However Turner’s fascination with colour was evident in his working materials used in studies such as for the topographical series ‘History of Richmond’ of which his sketchbooks are full of colour studies and are entities within themselves.
(Burg Sooneck with Bacharach in the distance. Colour study 1819-1820. J.M.W Turner)
Regardless of the negative comments he was receiving from critiques and artists alike, Turner had now marked out the art tradition with which he wanted to develop. ‘There were the sea-pieces linked with the great Dutch tradition, the historical landscapes which looked back to Poussin and Claude and the union of landscape and human figures’ (Lindsay 1985, p.41) it was these ideals in mind that Turner visited Devon in 1813 and in glorious sunshine he Sketch outdoors in oils, he was developing his skill in Oils and as a result he produced Crossing the Brook.
(Crossing the Brook. J.M.W Turner. 1815)
As already discussed, we can see that Turner had formed his traditions that he wanted to paint, he was concerned with the elevation of landscape painting in the hierarchy at the RA, he was working with Oils as well as water colour and was using the Oils as he did his watercolours to give a different approach to their appearance and he was working on a colour system. We also need to be aware that the cult of the Sublime was part of the new influence of the Romantic movement of which the picturesque was another aspect of this tradition. These movements spread across all the arts and was to influence Turner. ‘One aspect of art that was to dominate Turner is his practice and his techniques was that of Poetry and the absolute influence it would have over his art. ‘He needed poetry in order to clarify his thinking’ (Lindsay 1985, p.54)
Turner needed Poetry as an avenue to be able to transform his emotions about the world into art, into art images and that concerning the Historic Landscape and it here that we see the influence of Historic poets had over Turner’s artistic vision. ‘He saw the material of History as a vital part of the whole nexus of Poetry, symbolism, depth and variety of meaning’ (Lindsay 1985, p.35)
An influential aspect of Turners work that had developed through his practice over the decades was that ‘light becomes the active principle connecting the parts, not a medium spread without thought over the work’ (Lindsay 1985, p.52) which is evident in ‘The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire’
(The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire. J.M.W. Turner – 1817)
One of the most important realisations that Turner was to make in his practice was that ‘Nature ceases to be a static system of which the parts are separately delianted and is realised as something in unceasing movement and change. (Lindsay 1985, p.52) we can see the influence that such a statement has on Turner in his Painting ‘Snow storm: Hannibal crossing the Alps with his Army’.
(Snow Storm, Hannibal crossing the Alps with his Army. J.M.W Turner. 1812)
As Turner approached the last decade of this life, his practice started to take an even more sublime approach, an almost Surrealist expression in his art. He concerned himself with the depths of the picture. ‘Turner set about suggesting, to an extent that which was unprecedented in the visuals of art, what it might be to be beneath the horizon, beneath the water, beneath the paint’ (Monks 2013, p.1)
(Snow Storm, Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s mouth. J.M.W Turner. 1842)
This change in direction In Turners art did not go un-criticised ‘The critics jeered at Turners picture as a ‘Frantic puzzle’ or a ‘mass of soapsuds in a white wash’ (Lindsay 1985, p.146) and in Munich where he sent the Walhalla ‘It was misunderstood, poorly received and returned damaged’ (Brown 2012, p.8)
(The Walhalla, near Regensburg on the Danube. J.M.W Turner. 1840-42)
P.G Hamerton in his ‘Life of Turner’ states that ‘He was technically a wonderful but imperfect and irregular painter in oil, unsafe and unsound in his process’ (Lindsay 1985, p.159) This clear change in direction to the social Victorian norms of the romantic period ‘Highlights the readiness of its author to find himself adrift from his cultural inheritance, compelled to devise his own pictorial materials, language and form’ (Monks 2013, p.5) Turner did have critical exception in favour of his work. John Ruskin championed him in ‘Modern Painters’ and the French Artist ‘Delacroix wrote in 1858 ‘They broke out of the rut of traditional landscape painting’ (Lindsay 1985, p.160)
Through the vast Bequest of over twenty thousand works left by Turner, on his death to the nation, we can see through his work the change in direction, style, techniques and practice he adopted over the years. From his early academic and topographical work in ‘Malmesbury Abbey through to his influence of artists like Claude in Aeneas and the Sibyl and the Dutch masters in Fishermen, we can chart his change in direction to works such as ‘snowstorm, Hannibal crossing the Alps to his Sublime paintings such as Snowstorm, Steamboat of a harbours mouth. Turner may not have had a direct influence on the British Art scene at the time but things were different in France. ‘The impressionists were looking at ways of using colour in fresh and varied ways and his legacy lives on with his direct influence on Sisley and Renoir’ (Lindsay 1985, p.160)
Brown, David (2012) J.M.W Turner: Sketchbooks, drawings, watercolours, Tate Publishing
Monks, Sarah (2013) ‘Suffer a sea change: Turner, Painting, Drowning’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.) (2013) ,The Art of the Sublime, Tate Publishing
Lindsay, Jack (1985) Turner, The Man and his Art, Granada Publishing Ltd
London, Toronto, Sydney, New York
Lindsay, Jack (1966) Turner, Granada Publishing Ltd