"Painting is a strange business."
~Joseph M. W. Turner
The beginning of Joseph Mallord William Turner’s story is like most other artists, he
however would become England's greatest landscape painter of all time. His family situation, however, is not. His father,
a barber, had no known interest in art and his mother was mentally unstable, being placed in the Bethlehem Hospital for the
Insane in 1799 and dying there five years later. He has one sibling, a sister, who had a illness that caused her
death in 1786. That year young Turner was sent to live with his uncle. It may have been a gift from his uncle, but his first
sketchbook was also being worked in at this time. The small 6"x10" book was filled with old buildings and landscapes. Those
works may have been inspired by his first drawing teacher, Thomas Malton, a landscape painter who
had a flair for architectural design. He was a creative youth. "The mind
of the people is like mud, from which arise strange and beautiful things." He got involved with Sarah Danby, a singer
and actress, in about 1799. Her husband had just died and they became involved. Over their twenty year relationship they
had two daughters, Evelina and Georgiana, but they never married. He never had any sort or desire to form a relationship
with them, he was too focused on developing his art career.
Turner was an artist that would go on to create over 20,000 paintings and drawings in his life, but his training had to
start somewhere. Respected academic artist who made a name for himself as a disaster scent painter, Philippe
de Loutherbourg, worked with developing young Turner. He hired the sixteen year old Turner to help paint sets at the
opera house. Formal training began at the Royal Academy School. He began classes in 1798 (also where he probably met Sarah).
Artistically, he was influenced by the watercolor paintings done by Robert Cozens. He was a patient of Dr. Thomas Monro at
the Mental Institution. Turner and fellow artist, Thomas Girtin, who worked to copy the works in
exchange for oyster suppers and meetings with Cozens. Most of Turner’s money was earned by selling watercolors and engravings,
however he was criticized for their lack of finish. His artwork was first widely seen after two of his engravings were published
in 1794. He began to dabble in oil around 1795. He also enjoyed the paintings of Nicolas Poussin very much. This inspired him to use colors more freely.
Turner became exceptionally good at painting bad weather. As an attempt to study weather, he had himself strapped to a
ship mast to study a storm; He almost drowned from this. "I got the sailors to lash me to the mast to
observe it; I was lashed for four hours, and I did not expect to escape, but I felt bound to record it, if I did."
His style was an indication of what was to come with Impressionism. Turner, like the impressionists in the following art era,
had a need to imitate nature through his art. There are three main Romantic ideals on nature that Turner
followed: First, it had a sublime subject matter, or a main subject that was meant to shock
the viewer. Secondly, nature was fluid. This means that nature was always changing. Third, nature was alive. Nature was God
and was sympathetic to humans and always watching, but unable to alter their fate.
Through his training at the Academy and the skills he had developed, he was given many opportunities. He first traveled
abroad to study at the Louvre in France and went on to Switzerland. Later, in about 1820, he studied in Rome, Italy when he
was forty-five. He was able to travel a lot over the years. He was appointed a professor of perspective at the Academy in
1807. In 1803 he began the process of building his own gallery. He had been saving up his money for a while
and was beginning to get a reputation as a tight-wad. Once things were up and running, his father closed his shop to
work in his son’s gallery as his business manager. As a matter of fact, Turner was insistent on his dad
making the eleven mile trip each morning to open the gallery. Being a generally anti-social person, J.M.W.
was likely wanted his dad to work with customers and sales. When comfortable, it is said that he was a very happy
guy, but with new people he was very serious and constantly on guard. He was so focused on his artistic goals that he neglected
human contacts. It was Turner’s goal to take landscape painting to an art level that was greater than the popular history
painting of the time.
Often times when asked about the incorrect adornments of the ships
in his paintings, Turner would say," ... my job is to draw what I see, not what I know." What great
advice to other generations of artists. In my mind, his first great work was Slave Ship. It was a controversial painting because of its extremely political stance. Turner was disgusted at the thought
of slavery and fought against it. He also hated the painting. That was its intent, for people to hate it and all it showed.
It attacked the morality of the British in a very in your face manner. As we look at the work, we are first shocked with the
people in the water. Live cargo was insured. People in the business of selling slaves could not collect a cent
for a dead slave on land. However, if they were lost at sea, they would be compensated for their loss. This calm water
is getting rough from the violent hurricane in the distance. This is showing God's anger with human choices. The drowning
people are dead in the water, and God is sad and enraged. The British abolished slavery in 1833 in most of the
Empire. When it was first exhibited in 1840, it was hung beside
the following poem that he wrote called "Fallacies of Hope":
"Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhoon’s coming.
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
dead and dying - ne'er heed their chains
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?"
1840. Oil on canvas. 35 3/4 x 48 1/4 in. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Ma. USA.
Another of Turner’s great works was Rain, Steam, and Speed. After taking a trip on a train across country in 1844, he was inspired to create this work. Traveling at speeds
of about ninety miles an hour, Turner reportedly stuck his head out of the window during a rain storm for about ten
minutes to observe the force and effects of speed, rain, and wind upon his scenes. The train would become his symbol of progress.
A progress that he, and many others welcomed with open arms at that time.
Rain, Steam, and Speed
1844. Oil on Canvas. 35 3/4 x 48 in. National Gallery, London, England.
As he got older, ill, and depressed he would practically become completely withdrawn from all
human contact. Not that he ever had a lot of human contact. He never had many friends, probably because of his violent streak.
His home and gallery became dilapidated structures of disrepair. His greatness dissolved into alcoholism, living off an mixture
of rum and milk. The only one who see him, or wanted to, was his housekeeper, Mrs. Booth. She had sold him a new house
and lived there with him, although she had no idea he was a famous and wealthy artist. In the taverns around the home
that he would frequent, he was only known as Admiral Booth. Moments before death he said, "It is through
these eyes, closed forever at the bottom of the tomb, that generations as yet unborn will see nature." Just before
nine in the morning on a nice December day, he died. After his death, he was buried in Saint Paul's Cathedral in London. Several
years after his death the Impressionists; Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pierre Auguste Renoir, and others credited him with developing the roots of their fundamental beliefs "A group of French painters,
united in the same aesthetic aims...applying themselves with passion to the rendering of form in movement as well as the fugitive
phenomena of light, cannot forget that they have been preceded in this path by a great master of the English, the illustrious