William Turner: The last seascape

London-born Joseph Mallord William Turner was the most versatile, successful, and controversial landscape painter of nineteenth-century England. Demonstrating mastery of watercolor, oil painting, and etching, his voluminous output ranges from depictions of local topography to atmospheric renderings of fearsome storms and awe-inspiring terrain. Though profoundly influenced by landscapists and history painters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Turner was an innovator who has been hailed as a forerunner of modernist abstraction.

Turner profited from extensive training both within and outside of theRoyal Academy (RA) Schools. He was admitted to the RA's Plaster Academy at the age of fourteen, and to the Life Class three years later. He gained additional experience coloring prints, working as an architectural draftsman, and designing theatrical sets. In the 1790s, he participated in an informal "Academy," where he joined with Thomas Girtin and other young men in copying from prints, watercolors, and topographical drawings at the home of the physician and alienist Dr. Thomas Monro.

These early lessons in topography (59.23.23) stayed with Turner throughout his life. His first exhibited paintings were carefully delineated watercolors of recognizable English monuments and landscapes. Although Turner would later develop an extensive visual vocabulary that ranged far beyond precise renderings, first-hand observations remained crucial to his working method. Over the course of five decades, he filled hundreds of sketchbooks with visual records of scores of tours through England (89.15.9), Scotland, and Wales, and around the Continent to Belgium, France, Holland, Italy, the Rhineland, Switzerland (59.120), and elsewhere. Turner relied on these on-site sketches to inform even his most highly imaginative paintings. For instance, The Grand Canal, Venice (99.31), exhibited at the RA in 1835, combines multiple viewpoints to present an impossible view of several Venetian landmarks.

Watercolors inspired by these tours provided fertile ground for Turner's technical experimentation and, when used as the bases of print series, helped Turner to disseminate his principles and earn a sizable income. In the 1810s and 1820s, he produced series of small-scale topographical watercolors in which he evoked forms by layering blocks of color according to a classification system of "light" and "dark" colors that challenged many assumptions of contemporary color theory. The watercolors' light-filled, expressionistic appearance reflects this innovative technique. To create details, Turner scraped, blotted, and wiped the paint while it was still wet, and scratched into or drew on dry surfaces. Watercolors of English rivers, ports, and coastal scenes served as the basis for mezzotint and engravingseries, including the Ports of England (1826–28). Turner adapted his watercolor methods to oil paintings, which he built up from foundations of color to create uniquely evocative shapes and glowing forms.

The seventy prints of his Liber Studiorum (1807–19; see link below to view image) express Turner's elevated ambitions most clearly. These atmospheric images, which combine his own etched outlines with mezzotints applied by other artists, present six categories of landscape: Pastoral, Marine, Mountainous, Historical, Architectural, and Epic Pastoral. The title deliberately echoes the Liber Veritatis, a compilation of prints by the esteemed seventeenth-century painter of idealized landscapes Claude Lorrain. Turner may have produced another series of mezzotints singlehandedly; these images, never published, are known as the Little Liber (ca. 1824–26).

Turner believed that landscapes could convey a full range of artistic, historical, and emotional meanings, and presented himself as an heir to the great history painters of the past. As a young man, he learned to imbue his paintings with powerful expression by studying Piranesi's imposing architectural fantasies (06.1051.3) and copying works by Renaissance and Baroque masters. The legacies of Poussin, Raphael, Titian, and others are evident throughout his oeuvre. Turner specifically claimed Raphael and Rome as his inspirations in Rome, from the Vatican. Raffaelle, Accompanied by La Fornarina, Preparing His Pictures for the Decoration of the Loggia (1820; Tate, London).

Turner's forays into poetry complemented and enhanced the narratives of his landscape paintings. In 1798, he began including quotes from poets—for instance, Milton and Lord Byron—as accompaniments to his paintings in RA catalogue entries. He first used selections from an original poem, Fallacies of Hope, when he exhibited Snow Storm:Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps (1812; Tate, London). Excerpts from Fallacies of Hope would accompany many of Turner's subsequent paintings, though the text was never completed or published.

In addition to narrating tales from the distant past, Turner also found subjects in the world around him. Interested in expressing grand emotions, he was particularly attracted to sublime or awesome aspects of contemporary life. When, on October 16, 1834, the Houses of Parliament were ravaged by fire, he observed the conflagration from a boat in the Thames and recorded the scene in watercolors and oil paintings (see link below to view image). He memorialized yet a greater tragedy in Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying: Typhoon Coming On (1840; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; see link below to view image), indicting the slave trade's calculated horrors with agitated brushstrokes congealing into violent waves beneath a blood-red sky. The nearly abstract Rain, Steam, and Speed: The Great Western Railway (1844; National Gallery, London) evokes the Industrial Revolution's rapid transformations through strong diagonals, bold contrasts of light and dark, and tumultuous handling.

Turner elicited strong responses from friends and foes alike. On the one hand, he was respected by many colleagues. Having become a full member of the RA at age twenty-six, he was elected Professor of Perspective five years later. He remained active in the Academy throughout his life, serving in various governing roles which culminated in a brief tenure as acting president in 1845. Yet Turner continually elicited disdain from some conservative critics. In 1836, a vituperative review lambasting his loose handling inspired John Ruskin to take up Turner's defense. Ruskin's argument for Turner's genius ultimately grew into the five-volume Modern Painters (published 1843–60). Upon his death, Turner joined the notable Britons buried in Saint Paul's Cathedral. His bequest of 300 oil paintings and more than 20,000 works on paper soon entered the collection of London's Tate Gallery.

Elizabeth E. Barker

Department of Drawings and Prints, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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