handprint : joseph mallord william turner
 
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) is considered England's greatest painter. Son of a barber, and already drawing at age 8, Turner tinted prints for the engraver John Raphael Smith, in 1789 was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools and received tutoring in architectural perspective from the topographical artist Thomas Malton Jr. (1748-1804). In 1794-98 he worked in the "academy" of Dr. Thomas Munro alongside Thomas Girtin. In 1791 he made the first of many sketching tours throughout England, Scotland and Wales, traveling on foot 15 or more miles a day, accumulating sketches he would use years later. Elected to the Royal Academy in 1799 on the strength of a handful of oil paintings, by 1800 he had a backlog of 60 commissions from patrons including the Earl of Essex and Sir Richard Colt Hoare. Turner exhibited watercolors at the Academy from 1790 to 1820, but after 1804 he broke away from the stifling Academy procedures by exhibiting and selling most of his watercolors at a gallery installed in his London home or at galleries managed by professional art dealers such as Thomas Griffith and Dominic Colnaghi. He cemented his reputation as the finest landscape painter of his age (and watercolors as the crown jewel of English art) with an exhibition in 1819 of more than 60 of his landscape watercolors (and works of earlier artists) at the London home of Turner's major collector, Walter Fawkes (1769-1825) of Yorkshire, then reaffirmed it in subsequent exhibitions in Soho organized by the engraver and publisher William Cooke in 1821-24, and in a show of over 40 paintings of England and Wales at the Egyptian Hall, Picadilly in 1829. Turner made his first trip to the Continent (France, Savoy and Switzerland) in 1802, when he studied works by Titian, Poussin and Claude in the Louvre. He returned to Europe many times: in 1817 (to Belgium, Rhineland and Holland), 1819-20 (to Italy, during which he made more than 2,000 drawings), 1828-29 (France and Italy again), 1833 (Belgium, Germany, Austria and Venice), 1835 (central Europe), 1836 (France and Switzerland), 1840 (southern Germany, Austria and Venice), 1841 and 1842 (Switzerland), and 1844 (Switzerland and the Rhine). He also made many short excursions to France and the Low Countries from 1821 to 1845. Turner's popularity began to decline in the 1830's, as a result of the glut of his engraved works in the publishing market and his increasingly idiosyncratic and highly colored painting style. But when he died in the reign of Queen Victoria, Turner had created over 1800 finished watercolors and 10,000 drawings and studies; he had amassed a personal fortune equivalent to US$7 million in today's dollars; and had almost singlehandedly created the modern art market. Immensely read, widely traveled, a compulsive sketcher, with an incredible memory and depth of natural observation, reclusive and uncouth, but most of all ambitious and hardworking, Turner created landscape paintings that are revolutionary even today.
 
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Many of Turner's paintings before 1800 closely resemble the style and technique of his Munro colleague, Thomas Girtin, and depart only little from the topological or academic painting conventions. By the time Turner made his first European tour in 1802, however, his works began to reach a distinctive new power. Turner aimed to make watercolors the equal of oil painting in visual drama and impact, which he achieved through many technical and design innovations — some his own, and some adopted from painters such as John Robert Cozens (poetical landscape style and watercolor chiaroscuro), Thomas Girtin (broad wash technique and emphasis on atmosphere and light), the drawing master Francis Nicholson (1753-1844; starting a painting on wet paper, and using a resist or "stopping out varnish" to preserve white areas), and Michael 'Angelo' Rooker (the technique of subtly varying values or hues within a painting by the use of several glazes). He significantly enhanced the value range and dramatic chiaroscuro design of his pictures (from pale tints to near blacks), largely by using a gum varnish over darks to deepen their tone. Other innovative techniques included: sponging, scraping or blotting out colors or highlights (he especially liked the absorbency of dried breadcrumbs for blotting washes); using papers heavily sized with gelatin to assist in blotting or lifting colors and to increase color brilliancy; and mixing transparent watercolors with a small amount of white gouache to enhance the paint handling and intensity of color. Turner innovated "production line" methods for tinting papers or working on several related paintings at the same time, in order to satisfy the rapidly increasing demand for his works and extend the impulse of inspiration. Finally, Turner was the first watercolorist, starting around 1815, to exploit extensively the medium's resources for wet in wet effects — using the wet paper to float and mingle large areas of color, then blotting and scraping to shape lights and outlines. This range of techniques gave him an unparalleled ability to describe the effects of atmosphere and light, which he made more dramatic by increasing the size of his paintings to three feet or more. His large format Swiss paintings, such as Glacier and Source of the Arveiron, Going up the Mer de Glace, Chamonix (1802-03, 69x102cm) are in the grand style previously reserved for works in oil. (Comparison with the same scene painted by Francis Towne suggests the remarkable stylistic variety in Late Georgian watercolors.) Turner adopts a downward angle of view, and accents the vast mountain distances by showing the distant valley floor against the foreground trees, and the white outline of Mont Blanc through swirling mist. The sharp value contrast along the edge of white glacier accents the shattered ice and its steep slope. The littered foreground, rough trees, and squatting goatherd and sheep all suggest the remoteness and bitter climate of the location. But most striking are the unique effects of distance, light and clouds that Turner's mastery of watercolor materials made possible. At the time, these paintings were widely acclaimed as revolutionary advances in English art. Watercolor painting had finally arrived as a medium capable of any challenge, and Turner was leading the charge.
 
The dull and somber tones of the Chamonix landscape were typical of early 19th century academic paintings and common in Turner's early and rather conservative landscape and architectural watercolors. But his palette of darks gradually gave way to an impassioned and almost violent rendering of light, as in his rapturous view of Venice (1819, 22x29cm), one of the dozens of quarter sheet watercolors (and 2,000 drawings) that Turner completed during his first excursion through Italy. This trip was for him a liberating revelation of crystalline color and brilliant light, whose effects reverberate throughout his subsequent works as a more saturated range of rainbow hues. This watercolor carefully adjusts the hue and value of every shape to express the heat and humid shimmer of the Italian sun, not just in the magnificently graded yellow to blue wash in the sky, but in the blinding effects of the light itself — glittering in the water, neutralizing and lightening the colors, and limiting the value range to midtones and tints. Turner is reputed to have said toward the end of his life that "the Sun is God," and paintings after his Italian experience often have a luminous core of direct or reflected light that was intended to express a kind of Platonic spiritual light hidden behind physical reality. In the Venice painting this light has a weight and power surpassing the land and sea combined, a direct manifestation of the force that created the world.
 
Turner put much of his artistic effort in a wide range of publishing projects, crowned by the masterful and obsessively perfected plates for his Liber Studiorum (1807-19), considered by many to be among the finest collections of mezzotint engravings of the 19th century. This was a subscription project that the ambitious painter originally funded himself, in part to preserve his artistic reputation: he was already aware that the pigments and binders in his watercolor and oil paintings were rapidly degrading with time. A large number of engraved illustrations were commissioned by magazine, book, and art print publishers, and these reproductions generated a major portion of Turner's income and were a primary means for popularizing his art. (Turner's staunchest advocate, John Ruskin, was introduced to his works through the engravings for a book on Venice.) Richmond Castle and Town, Yorkshire (c.1825, 28x40cm) is from Turner's most ambitious and arduous commercial project, a series of 100 paintings of English landmarks commissioned by the publisher Charles Heath, which were sold as a subscription series of expensive, large format copper engravings (shown at right) under the title Picturesque Views in England and Wales (1825-38). (Some of these paintings were shown at Turner's 1829 exhibition.) This series has been called "the central document of Turner's art": a highly romanticized survey of English cities, occupations and landscapes — grimy railroads and factories not included. Turner invested great labor in each painting with extensive preparatory sketches and watercolor studies. The paired painting and engraving illustrate the standard procedure for publishing art in this era: the artist made finished paintings which were etched (and sometimes tinted with watercolors by hand) for publication; the paintings were then sold to collectors. The watercolor is an excellent example of Turner's middle style. As he became more fascinated with the effects of light (rather than light and dark), his palette changed to embrace a more prismatic range of hues — saturated violets, reds, oranges and pinks over a basic tonal structure painted in Turner's favorite yellows contrasted to complementary blues and green grays. Other characteristic features include the highly textured and expressive ultramarine sky; the darkened foreground and central area of luminous mist or reflected light; the foreground figure or figures that signal the local costumes and climate of the place; and the absurdly exaggerated vertical scale of buildings and hills (to create a greater sense of grandeur, and which the engraver minimized while exactly copying the rest of the image). Visible too are Turner's highly varied and assertive application techniques — wash areas with sponged out whites (the sky and clouds), lifted or blotted colors (the central luminous area and city), white areas preserved with "stopping out" varnish (the city profile against the sky), highlights scraped out with a brush handle, thumbnail or knife (the tree branches at lower right), and the many tiny strokes and stipples of accenting and defining colors.
 

Richmond, Yorkshire (1827)
copper engraving, 17x24cm

Many of the atmospheric effects more widely known from Turner's late oil paintings actually appear first, and in more expressive and varied forms, in his watercolors. His marine watercolors put many of his most innovative painting techniques on display. Venice, Storm at Sunset (c.1840, 22x32cm), one of many watercolors done during or just after Turner's last visit to Venice in 1839, suggests how Turner's poetical, atmospheric style grew out of careful weather observations joined with the unique effects possible with the watercolor medium. Turner was described (not by his detractors, but by those who saw him paint) as pouring colors on the paper to start a painting, then "chasing the colors around" to pull the image into relief. That technique seems visible here in the turbulent sky, threatening the boats that hurry to make harbor before dark. Just as he used flat and smoothly graded washes to express a heat heavy calm, now he uses a variety of visible brushstrokes, rough blottings and spongings, and colors mixed on the page to capture the whipping air of an ocean storm. The distant sunlit towers just visible through the luminous mist are lifted out of the painted sky by wetting the paint and blotting it away. In the foreground ocean water he overlays one color on another and gouges out whites along the lower right to mark the frothing waves. (Turner grew one thumbnail long to use for scraping his watercolors.) Once the painting had dried, Turner would paint in the last delicate details of boats and rippling water. Turner's aggressive, brisk, wet in wet methods for creating watercolors were widely admired, and were made possible by tougher, textured and more heavily sized linen papers developed by the Whatman paper company after 1800. With the exception of lightfast pigments, there are no watercolor materials or techniques in use today that were not already used or invented by Turner. And it's an indication of the fussy Victorian distinction between oil and watercolor media (and of the conservative, academic grip on oils) that Turner's watercolors were typically acclaimed as works of genius, while his oil paintings were often controversial.
 
In his last works, Turner achieved a lightness and suggestiveness of technique that some see as his greatest achievement, and others accuse of senility. Perhaps the most famous of these paintings, worshipped above all other Turner paintings by Ruskin, is The Blue Rigi (c.1845, 42x68cm). This is one of several masterpieces painted after Turner's last visit to the Alps in 1844. The peaceful scene actually rings with a hunter's shot — from the hunting boat at right, scattering the water birds at lower left — inserted as a synesthesic accent to the éclat of the rising sun. This transcendentally luminous image of the Kulm peak and its reflecting Lake Lucerne is a beautiful example of Turner's subtle method of building up color into a prismatic haze. The basic value composition of dark blue mountain and yellow sky was laid down in broad foundation washes of muted color that were sponged, wiped or brushed out to modulate the color mixtures and luminosity. Over this still damp image Turner then applied light, drybrush strokes of more saturated paint thickened with gum vehicle to shade forms, modulate colors, define edges and smooth transitions; as the painting dried he also used touches of water and breadcrumbs to wet and then lift away paint to make tints or highlights. He finished with a painstaking texture of stippled dots and dashes to model the foreground forms and clarify details. The result is a hazy painting of sponged washes viewed through a gauzelike web of thin brushstrokes and blotted color seen under a halftone pattern of tiny touches of paint. By this layered technique Turner was able to produce an illusion of transparency, mist, and glowing light. The mountain seems to stand as a symbol of the world appearing from the waters of creation. It also reflects Turner's intent to capture nature's "Ideal beauties" by painting the "qualities and causes" of natural phenomena rather than a literal record of a scene. Thus the glowing, vertically heightened apparition of the Kulm distracts our eye from its absurdly shortened reflection in the lake, which would have to extend downward to the level of the hunter's boat to be accurate. But Turner, professor in perspective at the Royal Academy Schools for 30 years, knew exactly what he was after: by putting the sun's reflection where the tip of the peak should be, he makes the star seem to hover directly over the mountain in a magical and "Ideal" visitation of light.
 
Many of Turner's most innovative works became known only after his death, in the huge collection of paintings, drawings and notebooks (know as the Turner Bequest) given to the National Gallery in 1852 and now partially on display at Tate Britain (London). These were painstakingly sorted, catalogued and appraised in the mid 1850's by John Ruskin (who also developed methods for displaying and conserving paintings done with fugitive pigments or inks; the story that Ruskin burned drawings or notebooks he found pornographic is apparently apocryphal). The Bequest included a large number of sketchbooks or apparently unfinished single sheet paintings known under the general label of "color studies." The Acropolis, Athens (c.1830, 19x23cm) is typical of the brisk washes and lack of detail that represent color or design experiments that Turner used to work out the brighter color schemes he favored after c.1815 (in fact, Turner never saw the Acropolis); others were hastily painted "snapshots" of transient effects of clouds, sunsets, water or lighting that are testaments to Turner's unflagging efforts at natural observation. But the atmospheric, evocative and quickly executed brushwork common to all these paintings had a great impact on later painters such as Hercules Brabazon Brabazon, who found in Turner's artistic reputation and economical brush techniques the precedent and methods to escape from the stifling and sentimental Victorian obsession with moralistic and technically arduous realism.

There are many aspects of Turner's art that can displease — his clumsily drawn and sometimes ludicrously posed landscape figures, his exaggerated perspective distortions, distracting foreground objects, reckless use of fugitive paints, and meretricious color effects — but he remains a giant in the watercolor tradition for his incredibly innovative technique and his increasing fascination with light and atmosphere as the fundamental subject of a painting. Turner's impact on Victorian art was stupendous and still resonates for painters today, who can study with excitement and interest the works of his unrivalled hand and visual imagination.

Turner's watercolors receive a splendid critical review in the catalog to the Royal Academy's 2001 exhibition Turner: The Great Watercolours (Royal Academy of Art, 2000), written by Eric Shanes with contributions from Andrew Wilton, Evelyn Joy and other Turner scholars. Alternately, there is an excellect selection of paintings in The Great Age of British Watercolours by Andrew Wilton and Anne Lyles (Prestel, 1993). Martin Hardie's chapter on Turner in British Water-Colour Painting: II. The Romantic Period (Batsford, 1967) is anecdotally rich but now out of date. The overview of Turner's entire painting career with the most representative selection of watercolors is The Art of J.M.W. Turner by David Blayney Brown (Knickerbocker Press, 1998). Two books with handsome but limited selections of Turner watercolors are 19th Century Watercolors by Christopher Finch (Abbeville Press, 1991, now out of print) which includes a few early watercolors; and the Fitzwilliam museum's British Landscape Watercolors, 1750-1850 by Jane Munro (New Amsterdam, 1994) presents several splendid late watercolors and "color beginnings" from the Turner Bequest.

 

Last revised 11.12.2007 • © 2007 Bruce MacEvoy