Art History Lab

Revisiting the Masterpiece: The Life and Art of J.M.W. Turner

The Life and Art of Joseph Mallord William Turner: A Journey into His World

Joseph Mallord William Turner is one of the most prominent British artists whose contributions to the world of art are unparalleled. Born in Brentford, England in April 1775, Turner embarked on a lifelong career that inspired generations of artists after him.

His works are characterized by their exploration of light and color along with his unique artistic approach that revolutionized the art of painting. The purpose of this article is to delve into the life and art of this remarkable British artist, providing insights into his early career, artistic style, and themes that defined his works.

Joseph Mallord William Turners Background and Early Career

Childhood and Education

Turner’s passion for art and artistic endeavors started at an early age. He spent his childhood yearning to pursue art, with his mother encouraging him to pursue his dream by enrolling him in a school in Margate that specialized in training budding artists.

Here, he began honing his skills, painting the village, and its surroundings.

Early Period and Rise to Prominence

At 14, he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Art in London, where he further polished his talent and improved his artistic skills. During this period, he gained considerable recognition for his etched plates and architectural studies, which created the foundation for his rise to prominence.

His first painting, Fishermen at Sea, was a testament to his skill and artistic approach, signalling the beginning of a remarkable career. As Turner continued to establish himself as an artist, financial security was never a concern for him.

His gallery establishment was a testament to this, providing him with an outlet to showcase his work and an opportunity to connect with audiences who would become lifelong admirers. His travels to Europe with fellow artists provided him the opportunity to explore new territories, capturing their beauty through sketches.

Turner’s Artistic Style and Themes

Experimentation with Sensations and Subjective Perception

Turners art was radical for his time, and his unique approach to painting the sensation of light threw off traditional stroke techniques. He was creating vivid perceptions that enhanced the mood of the image, with accurate portrayal of details and motionless situations.

To achieve this, he created whirling masses of light through the use of pigments and strong palettes of color, producing works that captured the essence of natures beauty. In Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, a masterpiece that illustrates a train journey, he cleverly portrays the motion and force of speed, a characteristic prevalent throughout his works.

Representation of Natures Power and Human Frailty

Nature’s power was one of the key themes that inspired Turner throughout his career. His works show microscopic human figures, overwhelmed by natural forces such as storms, sea, fire, and icebergs.

For instance, in Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, he captures the sheer power of snow, wind, and waves as it swallows the boat, giving a sense of human insignificance in the face of nature. Apart from nature, Turners artistic approach was defined by highlighting industry themes, with works such as The Fighting Temeraire showing the importance of industrialization and its impact on society.


Joseph Mallord William Turner remains a celebrated artist in the world, with his works attracting massive audiences to galleries and exhibitions worldwide. His influence on art movements, particularly Impressionism, was profound, and his legacy continues to inspire younger generations of artists.

His life story is a testament to the power of perseverance, talent, and free-spirited creativity, making him an icon in British art history. Turner’s Travels and Late Period

Constant Travel and Inspiration from Nature

Joseph Mallord William Turner had an insatiable appetite for continuous travelling, not only within the UK but throughout Europe. Switzerland, Italy, Germany, France, Denmark, and Czechoslovakia were some of the countries he visited, all in pursuit of new ideas and inspiration.

These travels inspired many of his future works in the late period of his life. Turner’s travels were not solely for inspiration, but also for actively engaging with his surroundings, creating sketches of the landscapes he enjoyed.

These sketches captured his immediate environment, ensuring that no detail went unnoticed. For Turner, inspiration came from nature, and it is evident in many of his works.

From his early period to his late period, Turner’s works often highlighted the beauty of nature, with ethereal paintings that transpired his ideas and artistic approach. Evolution of Turner’s Style and Legacy

Turner’s style evolved throughout his career, going from his early period, where his works were dark and moody, to the later years, where his works became more flowing and ethereal.

His style revolutionized the art world, and his legacy continues to inspire generations of artists. Mark Rothko, an American painter, was one of the artists who were deeply impressed by Turner’s work.

Rothko often spoke of Turner’s ability to create light out of color, a technique he appreciated in his own creations. Turner’s final years were marked with declining health, but the artist continued to produce exceptional works, which gained even more recognition and praise upon their release.

Notable Turner Paintings

Dutch Boats on a Gale (1801)

One of Turner’s earliest works was Dutch Boats on a Gale. This painting was notable for its representation of a stormy sea, with boats perilously close to looming danger.

The painting was not only an accurate representation of the sea, but it also captured the struggles of humankind in the face of adversity. Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (1812)

The forces of nature were a common theme in Turner’s paintings, and Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps was no exception.

The painting highlighted the harsh realities of crossing the Alps, with Hannibal portrayed in the center, surrounded by treacherous terrain and a raging storm. This painting was notable for its attention to detail and lighting, which created a sense of atmosphere throughout.

The Burning of the Houses of Parliament (1834)

The Burning of the Houses of Parliament is another notable work that highlights Turners importance in the art world. This painting depicts the horror Londoners felt as they watched the Houses of Parliament burn to the ground.

Turner’s use of light and color in this painting was particularly striking, and the overall emotional impact of the piece was immense.

The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to Be Broken Up (1839)

A majestic cruiser, the Temeraire, is portrayed as declining in heroic power in The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to Be Broken Up. The symbolism is emphasized by the sunset and the moonlit seashore, adding an emotional dimension to the painting.

Slave Ship (1840)

Slave Ship reflects on the atrocities of slavery, with a ship ominously depicted in a stormy sea. This painting highlights the power of nature and the dark history of slavery, serving as a reflection upon past crimes.

Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844)

Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway is a masterpiece that portrays a train thundering towards the viewer amidst a thunderstorm. Turner’s unique approach to portraying motion and speed is evident in this painting, and it serves as an example of his revolutionary approach to painting.

Light and Color (Goethe’s Theory) (1843)

Light and Color (Goethe’s Theory) epitomizes Turner’s unusual approach to painting. It depicts Moses and the snake, with light and color as its principal representations.

Recognition of Turners Paintings and Impact

Turner’s works have been recognized globally for their exceptional beauty and innovative techniques. The Tate Britain gallery holds many of his paintings, reflecting on Turner’s illustrious career.

Turner’s impact extends far beyond the art world. His technique and approach have influenced many abstract artists, with works by Olafur Eliasson inspired by Turner’s color experimental tests.

In conclusion, Joseph Mallord William Turner was not only a prominent figure in 19th century art, but his influence on artists and art movements endured, even after his death. His unique approach to painting and his ability to capture the essence of nature and human emotion made Turner a true master of his craft.

His legacy continues to inspire and engage audiences worldwide, serving as a testament to his immense contribution to the art world. In conclusion, Joseph Mallord William Turner’s life and art revolutionized the 19th century and beyond.

His early career and rise to prominence were marked by his passion for art, his extensive travels, and his unique artistic approach. Turner’s emphasis on the power of nature and the frailty of humankind defined his style and themes, and his paintings continue to inspire generations.

His notable works, such as Slave Ship, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, and The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to Be Broken Up, remain famous and widely recognized for their innovative techniques and emotional depth. Turner’s impact on the art world is lasting and profound, paving the way for future artists to follow.

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