J.M.W. Turner - legend and innovator
Some insights into Turner's style and its influences
In light of a new lockdown in London all museums have been, once again, closed. I have unfortunately been unable to visit the Turner exhibition before lockdown, so I will proceed with some general thoughts and insights into his art to make up for the missing out on the show.
Joseph Mallord William Turner is one of the greatest British artists in the history of art. It is an easy statement to make as he is often the only British artist people recognise as a 'famous' English painter - and unsurprisingly so. During his lifetime (1775 - 1851) he was a witness to many historical changes and events taking place in England, having the opportunity to depict them as his subjects really broadened his perspectives as a painter; as well as the continuous development of printmaking techniques which enabled him to disseminate his works to a wider audience (often on an international scale).
Those who may not be familiar with Turner's art, one of the subjects he often painted was cityscapes - pictures of Britain (and other countries he visited, like Italy). England was undergoing an industrial revolution and steam power was the most modern feature in Turner's lifetime. Turner, fascinated with these developments, painted many pictures depicting, trains, city horizons filled with factories and steamboats, showcasing the changing face of the nation and the effect these innovations had on it. Some would even call him "a perceptive chronicler of contemporary history" as his art documented a pivotal moment in Britain.
So what is it about Turner that is so recognisable? I would say that the stylistic approach to his subjects is what makes him stand out to this day. His interest in a variety of subjects (although many would argue that he is a landscapist, which I would disagree with) has led him to create paintings which communicated a variety of messages, however, they are all bound by one common denominator and that is Turner's use of colour and light. Particularly, his rendering of the sky and water. From the seascapes which could appear almost abstract to the subjects of historical importance to the landscapes of Rome showcasing his admiration for antiquity - Turner manages to create a scenic view highlighted by the beauty of the sky. He was like those people who take their phone out to take a picture whenever they see a pink or an orange sunset - fascinated by the beauty of the sky's natural effects.
However, this fascination with the sky and his 'washed out' technique of its depiction raised questions with researchers. Many wondered if there was a more definite explanation to such stylistic effect than just Turner's artistic development and unique approach - and behold - apparently, there was.
Fellow artist John Constable noted that his impression of Turner's style is that he paints with "tinted steam". Going back to Turner's interest in the revolution and the depiction of steam-powered objects, one may be able to see a pattern (although, it continues beyond the representation of these subjects as well). Take, for example, Rain, Steam and Speed - the Great Western Railway, the painting is a borderline abstraction, but once you realise that Turner is depicting a train - everything becomes very clear. The train encompasses steam and speed - the key industrial developments that he wanted to depict. The rain adds to the 'washed out' atmosphere of the scene and, perhaps, is meant to contrast with the heaviness of the train. Some art historians suggest that Turner also aimed to showcase the latest scientific discoveries in the field of vision and wanted to depict his subjects through the concepts of human perception and how it shapes what we experience.
Researchers nowadays believe that the 'blurry' style of the works could be explained by the effects of pollution and coal-burning. Turner painted so true to life, that he managed to incorporate the changing quality of air into his works.
Interestingly, another environmental effect which may have influenced the colour rendering in Turner's pictures is the eruption of a volcano in Indonesia in 1815. The effects of dirt and dust appeared in many paintings throughout the late 1810s. The effect occurs due to the varying wavelengths of the light which has to travel longer distances, so the shorter wavelengths' colours (like violet, blue and green) are dispersed to create longer ones (red, orange and yellow). Hense, Turner's choices of colour in many of the works after 1815 - he may not have known the reasons for the change of sky's colour, but his paintings helped researchers to document the effect the eruption had on the European atmosphere. Above, is a composite cityscape painting (meaning it's not a real view, the painter has made it up) of a Classical subject. The representation of the subject is obviously made up, however, the stylistic effect of the sky and water that Turner utilises here can potentially be attributed to something that he was able to witness himself on his travels - the red, yellow and orange colours are all present, the only spots of blue are visible in the corners. This may be a direct demonstration of the effects of the volcanic eruption discussed above.
A completely different set of colours is presented in the painting Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth. Here, the composition is very abstracted, it fully relies on the boat in the middle of the painting - the only slightly recognisable object. The sombre colour palette and the somewhat unsettling subject matter shows a different approach to nature. Turner's awareness of the beauty, yet unpredictability of the forces of nature, serves as a reminder to the audience that even the latest scientific developments cannot oppose the natural. He does not hide the strength and, perhaps, the frightful nature of the event, yet, he chooses to illustrate humanity's attempts to fight it.
Art critics agreed that Turner had developed a completely distinctive approach to painting. By the end of his career, modernity was not limited to Turner’s subject matter, it had also transformed his style and practice. His unique style and approach to a variety of subject matters with a distinctive feel for each one of them is what earned him recognition even during his lifetime. His famous quote from an 1818 lecture - "Light is therefore colour" - perfectly describes his personal philosophy and approach to art. The audiences will continue to be fascinated by Turner's artworks, whilst the researchers will continue to dig deeper in search for more influences and explanations.
Thank you for reading this story! If you enjoyed it, please share and tip if you can. Stay tuned for more art writing! If you want to discuss anything mentioned above, do reach out on Twitter - I'll be happy to talk more art!