About the Artist
Turner was a groundbreaking figure in setting the foundation of modern painting, anticipating impressionism and even abstract art with his interest in direct observation, light effects, and capturing aspects of contemporary life. Yet he also actively sought the approval of his peers and the public, mainly through the auspices of the Royal Academy of Art. This duality characterized much of his career. One writer (William Henry Pyne) noted in 1833, “A person cannot be a half admirer of Turner; his genius admits of no gradation of favor; universal, or not at all, must be the person’s admiration.”
Supported by his father, a barber and wigmaker, Turner enrolled at the Royal Academy of Art at age 14. From early on, he was devoted to landscape painting and drew inspiration from earlier, 17th-century Dutch and French landscape painters while seeking to innovate a new approach and elevate the status of landscape painting. He worked extensively in watercolor, uncommon at a time when oil paint was the most esteemed medium, and handled it with virtuosic skill. Eventually, he opened his own private gallery in London, where he could experiment and exhibit groupings of his work and promote his singular vision as he pleased. His work included dramatic marine and history paintings, and often reflected his interest in capturing the sublimity—or awesome and sometimes fearsome aspects—of nature.
Turner’s high ambitions were ill-matched with his general demeanor. Considered by many uncouth in his way of speaking, unsophisticated in appearance, and inattentive to the social refinements of the day, these deficits probably prevented him from achieving his ultimate goal, to become president of the Royal Academy, a prestigious position that, much like today’s high academic posts, required social dexterity and connections.
Regardless, Turner enjoyed the admiration of his peers and ultimately, numerous art patrons. The artist was named a full Royal Academician in 1802, the youngest to be so honored. His loose and romantic style coincided with the British rejection of the highly polished, classicized French styles of painting that had dominated European tastes in the previous century. The success he so prized was his, and on his death in 1851, he was honored by the British government and people and interred in St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Turner Bequest, consisting of hundreds of paintings and drawings, is now housed at Tate Britain and the National Gallery, London.