Over 170 years after his death, JMW Turner, the enigmatic visionary painter, still commands the attention of the art world. In the last year, his work has been prominently featured in exhibitions in England, Canada, Denmark, France, Australia, Japan, and the United States.
Turner’s Modern World, a landmark survey that highlights the artist’s luminous reach, is currently on display at the Kimball Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. The show will close in February and reopen at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in March 2022.
How has Turner managed to maintain such relevance in a field where even some of the most gifted pass from the spotlight after only a few seasons?
The answer is that Turner was extraordinarily farsighted: one of his chief preoccupations — man’s complicated relationship with nature — is as pertinent, even more pertinent, than ever. And his technical understanding of the interplay of color and light remains at the forefront of artistic endeavor to this day. Turner was a man way ahead of his time.
In the words of Roberta Smith of The New York Times: “Turner rode the cusp of art history as if it were a great wave crashing through one of his seascapes…his squalls of paint presage the Romantics, the Realists and even the Abstract Expressionists.”
The highly regarded painter, sculptor, and photographer, Sean Scully, said this about Turner: “His work is absolutely nonlinear, which is symptomatic of the kind of painting that we’re involved with in our age.” Scully went on to observe, “the only thing you can do with a Turner…is to submit to its beauty.”
Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in the spring of 1775. No exact date has been established, but Turner later said he shared a birthday with William Shakespeare, so April 23 is the generally recorded day.
Turner was a child prodigy: he was drawing seriously before the age of 10, and not long after that, his father, a barber and wigmaker, was selling the art in the window of his Covent Garden shop.
At the age of 14, Turner was enrolled in the nearby Royal Academy of Arts, an institution with which he would be associated for six decades. He first exhibited there at 15, the youngest artist featured in the history of the Academy.
Thanks to the exposure of these exhibitions, Turner quickly developed a network of patrons: by the time he was in his early twenties, he had more commissions than he could readily execute. Poverty was permanently behind him. When Turner died at the age of 76 in 1851, he had amassed a fortune.
But neither material gain nor strong interpersonal relationships were primary ends in themselves for Turner. He was a frugal man who, over time, grew careless about his personal appearance — his primary residence was squalid. He had significant affairs with women, but married none of them. He fathered and almost completely neglected two illegitimate daughters.
Turner’s focus in life was work. He traveled extensively and sketched what he saw. Those notebooks contained the grist of his prodigious career output: 550 oil paintings, 2,000 watercolors, and 30,000 works on paper.
Turner, of course, is famous for revolutionizing landscape paintings. He resolutely refused to idealize or artificially beautify the natural state. Utilizing subtle and sometimes forceful interactions of light and color, he composed with a unique “dynamic painterly flair” that set his work apart.
Nature was just one of many subjects Turner tackled. Architecture, war, seascapes, and environmental “atmospherics” all captured his imagination.
Remember, when Turner was born, the fastest thing on earth was a horse. As the Industrial Age commenced, Turner was fascinated, perhaps abhorred by the impact of speed and smoke on the world.
Amy Concannon, Senior Curator of Historic British Art at Tate and renowned Turner authority said: “He was interested from an early age in the atmospheric effects produced by the byproducts of industrialization…he carried that interest over into his attempts to draw out the sublime effect of smoke emissions from steamships and trains.”
His earlier work was representational — later he became more abstract, again with swirling light and color in ever-roiling strokes. This image Rain, Steam, and Speed — The Great Western Railway painted in 1844 is a masterpiece in which Turner’s genius is manifest.
Calling him “the father of modern painting,” the late Hilton Kramer wrote in The New York Times: ” We see in the last decade of Turner’s immensely productive career…the elevation of color to the most radical priority ever accorded (until then) in the history of Western painting.”
Upon hearing the news that his friend JMW Turner had died, art critic John Ruskin lamented: “Everything in the sunshine and the sky so talks of him. Their Great Witness is lost.”