John Malford William Turner (1775-1851)
He is called "the painter of
light," "the great pyrotechnist," "the
first impressionist," and "the greatest of all
modern painters," by John Ruskin, and born in London
to a barber and wig-maker. His mother was mentally unstable,
and was committed to the asylum for the insane in 1800.
Yet his father was quite the opposite and encouraged the
young boy in his painting, and allowed his works to be displayed
in his shop windows. Turner was a self-taught genius; at
14 years, his sketch-book was filled with drawings of trees
and buildings he observed from wandering the countryside.
In 1789, Turner attended the Royal Academy, and his first
exhibition at the academy took place two years later. In
1795, Turner turned to oils. Throughout his years at the
academy, he toured England and Wales, painting profusely.
In 1799 he was elected as an Associate of the Royal Academy,
and in 1803 he was appointed to the Royal Academy Council.
His attachment to the Academy would be for the rest of his
life. His early works were influenced by French painter
Claude Lorrain. The same, broad-sweeping, emotional and
wild landscapes occasionally dotted with people dominated
his paintings. His contemporaries described him as uncouth,
morose, volatile, passionate, poetic, romantic-his temperament
matched his paintings. He also fed himself with Byron, Gray,
Thomson, Milton, and Shelley. His literary attachments would
reveal themselves through his 1830's illustrations of Byron,
Campbell, and Rogers, particularly Byron's Childe Harold.
He kept his private life a secret and therefore not much
is known of it. In his later years, he took to announcing
himself as Admiral Booth, to hide his identity in public
places. During the Peace of Amiens, Turner had the chance
to visit France and Switzerland. There he produced over
400 sketches and studied the masters that hung in the Louvre.
As he neared his 30s, his paintings became more and more
abstract. Towards the 1840s, he began to depict violence
and suspense of man against man and man against nature on
the high seas. He toured Italy, Germany, and Switzerland
again in the early 1840s, producing much astonishing and
impressive work. In 1845, he became acting president of
the Royal Academy, as the elected president lay on his sickbed.
As Turner neared the end of his life, he resorted to alcoholism
and his works matched his destructive habits. As he died,
he saw the first rays of light blind the Thames river. He
died wealthy and famous, with over 19,000 works to his credit.
Dido building Carthage (1815)
Fighting Temeraire (1838)
Rain, Steem, Speed (1844)
Wilton, Andrew. J.M.W. Turner- His Art and
Life. New York: Rizzoli, 1979.