In This Article Joseph Mallord William Turner

  • Introduction
  • Turner Studies
  • Biographies
  • General Overviews
  • Turner and Other Artists

Art History Joseph Mallord William Turner
by
Kathleen Nicholson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0122

Introduction

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) is the most renowned British painter of the first half of the 19th century. He transformed his specialty, landscape painting, both formally and thematically. He began in the late 18th century topographical tradition, in which simple description took precedence, then rapidly shifted to a study of natural effects as part of his understanding of landscape painting as a vehicle for meaning on a par with traditional history painting. Turner was a master of technical invention whether in oil painting, watercolor, or graphics, especially evident in his rendering of the qualities of light and atmosphere. He used a white ground to heighten the luminosity of his increasingly lighter and brighter color palette. When synthetic pigments were introduced in the 1820s, Turner employed them. Over time, as his brushwork and handling became progressively freer; he became a paragon of Romantic individualism and an inspiration for Impressionists like Monet and Pissarro. While Turner’s late works might suggest proto-abstraction, the artist in fact always valued the role of subject matter and narrative content, often underscored by lengthy titles he supplied for public exhibitions. Turner discovered the capacity of nature and of landscape painting to convey significant meaning in 17th-century predecessors like the French artists Poussin and Claude Lorrain, adapting both their classicizing formal conventions and their repertory of subjects from the Bible, classical history, and classical mythology. Turner modernized that practice by treating contemporary issues, whether slavery, modern technology, or current events. Rather than promoting a particular moral, his subject matter was often deliberately ambiguous or open to interpretation. Through his lifelong travels in Britain and abroad, Turner constantly gathered new material that enabled him to treat all the varieties of imagery grouped under the heading of landscape, including marine painting, pastoral, and view painting. Turner created his work with the public in mind. He began exhibiting regularly at the annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy of Art in 1790 and continued to submit works until 1850. He was elected to full membership in the Royal Academy in 1800, at age 25. In 1804 he boldly established his own exhibition gallery. Turner’s artistic innovation prompted both positive and negative criticism in the contemporary press. To reach a wide audience he produced book illustrations and engravings for various types of publications, including one of his own, the Liber Studiorum, a set of images demonstrating his concept of landscape art. Turner bequeathed the contents of his studio and gallery to the British Nation, a gift housed at Tate Britain.

Turner Studies

The scholarly literature on Turner has been shaped by a number of factors. The sheer quantity of his art, including over five hundred oil paintings, more than thirty thousand works on paper, as well as a large body of graphic works and book illustrations has meant that no study can be fully comprehensive. The diversity of artistic approaches within this large oeuvre has resulted in an equally diverse set of scholarly approaches. These range from a focus on Turner’s experience of place, where he traveled, what he saw, and how he transcribed it, to interpretive investigations of the subjects and themes that Turner portrayed, to considerations of his formal invention and use of materials, among others. The interpretive studies tend to follow one of two veins: Turner is understood either as an optimistic proponent of the modernity brought about by the Industrial Revolution, or as a pessimist about the loss of the pastoral, preindustrial natural world. Both responses, and those that might fall between, are based primarily on readings of Turner’s imagery since the artist chose not to verbally elaborate on his own creation in any direct way. However, he also provokes the viewer to look for allusions in his visual imagery, often through the prompt of long titles or citations of poetry printed in exhibition catalogues during his lifetime. No interpretation of Turner’s work can be said to be definitive, only more or less persuasive. Because Turner bequeathed most of his work to the British nation, a gift now housed primarily in one institution, Tate Gallery Britain, many of the publications about him are in the form of museum exhibition catalogues. They offer ongoing research in varied formats, for example, providing information primarily in the individual entries on works written by curators or through preliminary essays by outside scholars. Between 1980 and 1991, the Tate Gallery also published the journal Turner Studies, edited by Eric Shanes, and containing over one hundred articles on all aspects of the artist. It is the primary source for informed research on the artist to 1991. A representative selection of these articles is cited in this bibliography. The Turner Society, founded in 1975, continues to publish new research by Turner specialists in the Turner Society News, currently only available to its members.

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