Joseph Mallord William Turner, also known as the painter of light, is quite possibly England’s favorite Romantic painter. Born in 1775 into a modest London family, he began his career by selling drawings and watercolors at the age of twelve. His first works showed an undeniable talent. Sometimes eccentric, J. M. W. Turner’s life was marked by complete devotion to his work. He was an insatiable traveler, wandering across Europe and documenting the landscapes he encountered with his watercolors. He was first and foremost a landscape artist. His work, essentially Romantic, later evolved towards a new and daring pictorial representation, paving the way for Impressionism and Abstraction. Take a look at 8 fascinating artworks painted by J. M. W. Turner.
1. J. M. W. Turner’s Fishermen at Sea, 1796
In 2013, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England hosted an exhibition called Turner and the Sea. An interesting event, knowing that maritime art represents about two-thirds of Turner’s work. The sea was Turner’s favorite subject. The 2013 exhibition featured a hit painting, a large canvas that first impressed visitors who came to the Royal Academy in 1797. It is called Fishermen at Sea. This is the first oil painting that Turner exhibited at the Royal Academy when he was 24 years old. This painting carries on the tradition of moonlit landscapes that became popular in the 18th century with artists such as Joseph Vernet, Loutherbourg, and Abraham Pether.
Fishermen at Sea is a painting that can be considered Realist because of the ways in which Turner manages to capture the light of the moon, its reflection on the sea, as well as the realistic waves. Although by the atmosphere it gives off, this painting is essentially Romantic. As a viewer, the feeling of the overwhelming power of nature that is expressed through the imposing presence of the moon and the sea is humbling. This echoes the concept of the Sublime and the Infinite, coined by Edmund Burke and so dear to the Romantics. By highlighting nature, rather than human subjects or objects, the powerlessness of humanity in the face of nature is revealed. Unlike the dominant light of the moon, the fishermen’s lantern emits a weak and flickering light, as if to underline the insignificance of Men in the face of nature.
Before traveling through Europe, Turner explored his native country and produced many watercolors of English landscapes. In Fishermen at Sea, the artist depicts the fishermen in their boats off the Isle of Wight. On the left in the background of the painting, he depicted The Needles, an iconic rock formation off the coast of the island. From one of his tours of the Isle of Wight in 1795, Turner produced a whole notebook of watercolors. This artistic interest in this location reflects, according to art historian John Gage, a Picturesque influence. In the tradition of the Grand Tour, and of painters like Loutherbourg or Gainsborough, Turner traveled and documented the landscapes that struck him.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
2. Self-portrait, 1799
This self-portrait, now featured on £20 bills, was made by Turner in 1799. It was painted the same year when he was elected a member of the Royal Academy, so the artist may have painted it in order to mark this important moment in his career.
He depicted himself in all simplicity, on a neutral background, motionless and fixing his gaze straight ahead. His cheeks are colorful, his skin smooth and plump: he is not a boy anymore but he hasn’t lost his juvenile look. Aside from his piercing eyes, his features are imprecise and a bit blurry. His nose is painted particularly blurry, almost camouflaged. Another portrait of Turner at the age of 17, drawn by fellow artist George Dance, shows his nose from the side and much wider than in this self-portrait.
There’s shadow, darkness, and mystery all around him. His light blond hair, pale skin, and white clothes are in contrast with the dark, plain background. He chose to set himself apart, forcing our attention entirely on him. Emulating Rembrandt’s self-portraits, Turner painted himself rigid, without artifice, without even an accessory such as a brush or a palette to remind us that he is an artist. As in many of his later works, he invites the viewer to interpret the work. He forces us to imagine, to always project ourselves further, and to think with our emotions in order to understand his art.
3. Dido Building Carthage, 1815
His many Tours of Italy, along with his trips to France, Switzerland, and Germany revived Turner’s admiration for the old historical landscape masters such as Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin. Turner began painting a series of foreign, exotic landscapes, inspired by his travels and the watercolors he brought back home with him. Dido Building Carthage, or The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire, painted in 1815, unmistakably shows Turner’s Classical training and influences, especially his admiration for Claude. Initially, he even requested that Dido Building Carthage be hung next to Claude’s 1648 painting, Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba. The parallel between these two paintings is unmistakable.
Like Claude’s painting, Dido Building Carthage combines landscape and history, even if fictionalized. Directly drawn from Virgil’s Aeneid, the subject of this painting is the foundation of Carthage by the legendary queen Dido. She is represented in blue and white, at the bottom left of the painting. More than the upper half of the painting is dominated by a bright, yellow, intense sunrise as if to symbolize the dawn of a new era. On the right of the painting, the tomb of Dido’s deceased husband, Sychaeus, stands as a funereal and premonitory symbol of the dire destiny of Carthage.
The place of man in nature is a constant concern of the Romantic landscape. In the work of German Romantic landscape master Casper David Friedrich, the characters are most often represented in full contemplation in front of a grandiose landscape. As for Turner, he used human subjects to justify the representation of landscape. Initially a great admirer of the Classical masters’ historical landscapes, Turner eventually created his own style, dissolving the details of the subject into colorful atmospheres.
4. Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, 1812
In Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, Turner deals with a historical subject by showing Carthaginian general Hannibal’s march towards Rome. According to Livy’s historical account of the 2nd Punic War, Hannibal took a 15-day journey from present-day Tunisia to Italy. Crossing the Alps, with his army and his elephants, was the most difficult obstacle of the journey, so it became legendary. Despite conquering the hostility of the mountain, Hannibal would later be defeated. This failure is suggested by the atmosphere in this painting.
The immense arch of the storm curves like a wave around the mountains on the right of the painting and looks like it is about to engulf Hannibal’s army, which only occupies the bottom fifth of the canvas. The atmosphere is disturbing, mainly because of the darkness dominating most parts of the painting. The sun is concealed by the snowstorm, on which Turner wanted to insist. The men are defenseless against the storm and their backs are turned on the audience. Hannibal is not placed in the center of attention, the struggling soldiers are. This is not a painting meant to exalt the power of the historical figure that is Hannibal, it’s meant to show the powerlessness of men when confronting nature.
5. The Slave Ship, 1840
The Slave Ship, originally called Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhon coming on depicts a boat in the background, sailing through a turbulent sea. In its wake, human bodies are floating in the waves, their black skin and chains indicating that they are slaves. Turner was reportedly inspired by Thomas Clarkson’s The History and Abolition of the Slave Trade. In 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong ordered 133 slaves to be thrown overboard so that he could collect insurance payments. When The Slave Ship was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1840, Turner juxtaposed his painting with one of his own poems:
Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon’s coming.
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying – ne’er heed their chains
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?
At first glance, the blood-red intensity of the enormous sunset that takes up most of the painting is what grabs the viewer’s attention. The masts of the boat are also painted a reddish hue and this same color is used in the setting sun reflecting off the water. The scene is reminiscent of a gigantic brazier, not unlike the two canvases that Turner painted in 1835, both titled The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834.
By choosing to focus on the colors, Turner blurred the contours of the different elements of his painting. Confused, wispy lines would become a major feature in his later works, making objects, colors, and subjects indistinct. This emphasis on colors, especially the red in The Slave Ship, is typically Romantic. The focus is, here again, on nature and its grandeur.
Appreciated by his contemporaries and regularly featured at the Royal Academy exhibitions, Turner began to take his art in a different direction in his later years, but he also started receiving more and more negative reviews. William Makepeace Thackeray wrote about The Slave Ship: Is the painting sublime or ridiculous? Indeed I don’t know which.
However, the famous art critic John Ruskin, who received this painting as a gift from his father in 1844, wrote a text published in his Modern Painters to express his admiration for Turner’s painting. His analysis allowed the public to better understand and appreciate the latest works of the painter. For Ruskin, this Sublime painting expressed inner torture. He linked it with a holy divine dimension and speculated that the sea was a representation of God. The blazing sunset would then be understood as the fire of God, the divine punishment. The piece was a symbol of the powerlessness of men before two main forces of this world: nature and God.
6. The Rooftops of Venice at Sunrise, 1840
Turner didn’t just practice painting, he also came up with theories on his own art and gave lessons in 1811. He taught perspective and pictorial techniques but also talked about the importance of landscape painting, and the Romantic link between nature and passion. He also wanted the art of landscape to be taught at the Royal Academy.
The painter made his first trip outside Great Britain in 1802 at the age of 27 when he visited Switzerland and France. After the Napoleonic wars, he started traveling again in 1817 visiting the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and most importantly Italy. His first Italian Tour happened in 1819. The trip left an important mark on his career. Turner would return to Italy on many occasions.
The watercolor The Rooftops of Venice at Sunrise was made during his last visit to Venice in 1840. The series of liquid watercolors painted during this trip exudes an ethereal, almost spiritual atmosphere. The lines are blurred, the forms hazy as if to only suggest as subtly as possible the subjects that Turner is trying to paint. The only color patch that immediately catches the eye is the bright red in the rising sun that dissolves in the sky. As often with Turner, the incandescent glow of a rising or setting sun is reminiscent of a blazing fire.
The watercolors created during his travels were published in 1826 in the literary annual The Keepsake and in collections of engravings in 1831 called The Turner’s Annual Tour. This made him famous in the eyes of English society. The progressive evolution of his oil painting, surprisingly modern for its time, was on the other hand badly received and misunderstood by his contemporaries.
7. Light and Colour, 1843
In 1966, the Museum of Modern Art in New York presented an exhibition entitled Turner: Imagination and Reality. Lawrence Gowing, the curator of the exhibition, wanted to call it Pictures of Nothing, using the pejorative expression coined by the 19th century critic William Hazlitt and used to describe Turner’s paintings. Indeed, this 1966 exhibition placed the emphasis on works made during the last two decades of Turner’s life. In other words, the paintings that make him, according to some, the pioneer of a modern aesthetic that would eventually give birth not only to Impressionism but also to Abstract art.
Light and Colour is a yellow vortex of literally pure light and color. It is difficult to distinguish anything when looking at it. Turner was inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Theory of Colors stating that colors are seen as an emotional phenomenon and that each one is a unique and skillful combination of light and darkness. Towards the end of Turner’s career, he was accused of producing overloaded garish paintings. Critics even joked that Turner caught a yellow fever, mocking his choice of colors.
The subject of the work is biblically inspired, it depicts the day after the Great Flood. A blurred human figure is standing through the vortex of color representing Moses, accompanied by a snake, the brazen serpent he raised to cure the plague. This painting is no longer a realistically depicted landscape, but the message remains the same; Man is powerless against the forces of nature and against God which are both symbolized by the destructive Flood.
The circular shape of this painting could also symbolize the human eye. With its color, it also resembles an incandescent sun, again reminiscent of the punitive fire of God. When looking at Light and Colour, It’s impossible not to think of Turner’s last words: The sun is God.
8. J. M. W. Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed, 1844
Rain, Steam and Speed is one of Turner’s most avant-garde paintings. It depicts a train speeding across a bridge. To the left of the canvas, a bridge is visible, which made it possible to identify the trajectory of the locomotive: on its way to Bristol from London. The landscape is drowned in a typical British fog. The sky, the earth and the river mix to become one, and the horizon line is barely sketched. In the midst of this pictorial chaos, the locomotive stands out clearly, drawn with detail.
This painting illustrates the Impressionist idea that it is not necessary to reproduce reality exactly as it is. It is enough to suggest the objects, creating feelings in the viewer. Here, the sensation that Turner wanted to capture is that of speed. Everything is blurry around the train, accentuating the idea of speed.
An ode to progress, early illustration of the Industrial Revolution that agitated England, this painting is far removed from the landscapes of classical and historical inspiration that Turner was used to making. It shows his fascination with modernity and traveling. His nervous touch and the impasto on the canvas are all premonitory signs of Impressionism and Abstraction. By defending a broader conception of landscape art based on the blending of genres, Turner created the very foundation of pictorial Romanticism, the end of the hierarchy of genres.