J.M.W. Turner (Joseph Mallord William Turner) was born on April 23, 1775 in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden in London. He was a famous Romantic painter, water colorist and print maker. His mother was named Mary Marshall and she was born into a family of butchers. William was papa Turner and he made wigs and cut hair for a living. J.M.W. Turner grew older as his mother experienced a mental decline. She was committed to St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics in 1799. He was twenty-four. She passed away in the hospital in 1804. He was twenty-nine.
Turner lived with his uncle in Brentford, London during his childhood. In 1786 he moved to Margate, a seaside town in Thanet, Kent, England. He created a series of drawings inspired by his surroundings. His work was sold out of his father’s shop window for a marginal amount. William was proud as J.M.W. continued to paint. The artist worked with watercolors and completed an entire sketchbook a year later. The drawings would be converted to masterpieces later in his life.
The sketches consisted of architectural studies of his environment. In 1789, he studied under the topographical London painter Thomas Malton. Malton’s main subject matter was the views of London. Turner learned fast and later called Malton his real master. The work was meaningful and profitable. He earned enough money to pay for his studies at the Royal Academy of Art in 1789. The young artist was fourteen.
J.M.W. Turner’s Early Career
He was accepted into the school a year later with a focus in architecture. His talent was obvious and his teachers advised him to focus on painting. Turner obliged and his watercolor A View of the Archbishop’s Palace, Lambeth was added to the Royal Academy summer exhibition of 1790. He was fifteen.
J.M.W. Turner was a natural and was taught to draw antique sculptures fashioned from plaster casts. He began to study and paint the human body in 1792 when he was admitted into the Academy’s life class. The class utilized nude models in its coursework. His lost painting The Rising Squall – Hot Wells from St Vincent’s Rock Bristol was finished in 1793. It was cited as a prime example of what was to come. His breakthrough came in 1796 with Fisherman at Sea. It was well received by the critics and pushed him into the mainstream.
In 1802, Turner traveled to Switzerland and France. He made many trips to Venice and studied at the Louvre in Paris. A Member of Parliament, Walter Ramsden Hawkesworth Fawkes became one of his earliest supporters. The pair met in 1797. Turner was twenty-two. Fawkes commissioned several paintings and they became close friends. Walter lived in Otley near West Yorkshire and J.M.W. became infatuated with the area. His famous piece Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (1812) was motivated by a storm in Otley.
Time passed and J.M.W. Turner became a recluse. The eccentric painter had few friends. He was close with his father and William lived with Turner for thirty years and worked as his studio assistant. Papa passed in 1829 and turner felt abandoned. He slipped into routine depression and in his isolation he never married. He had a relationship with an older widow named Sarah Danby and is assumed to have had two children with her.
A famous, but short friendship with the artist Edward Thomas Daniell was formed. Daniell died at the age of thirty-eight. His departure left Turner heartbroken and helpless. J.M.W. Turner died from cholera in Chelsea on December 19, 1851. He was seventy-six years old. The master was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral near the painter Joshua Reynolds.
Turner’s recognition came at an early age. His palate choice and thematic pictures were recognized as genius. The positive feedback drew the usual criticism that often follows. His naysayers debased his canvases as simple landscape. Shipwrecks were a common element that entered his body of work after witnessing one first hand. The painter was able to take the natural event and amplify it with intense depictions of fog, rain, storm and sunlight.
His style matured with age and oils were used instead of watercolors. Turner was able to evoke almost photographic replications of light and reflection. His artwork soon went beyond. Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844) is an example of the prototype. The objects are almost unrecognizable and supplanted by the colors. The style ushered in a new era of thought that inspired Claude Monet and the Impressionists. Monet studied Turner’s technique and all roads to abstract painting start with Turner.
J.M.W. used a wide range of pigments throughout his career. He was fond of carmine and used it in several of his canvases. The deep red color was known to fade and many experts advised the artist to utilize more durable colors. He listened to their pleas, but chose to ignore them. Turner was unconcerned with posterity and chose pigments that looked the best when they were freshly painted. His decision has caused many of his watercolors and oils to fade. J.M.W. Turner’s work looks almost decayed when viewed today. As the color on his canvases lightens, his memory and masterpieces are solidified in the artistic pantheon. What is life without a little irony?
“It is only when we are no longer fearful that we begin to create.”– J.M.W. Turner