The early life and work of J.M.W. Turner

J.M.W Turner is an English painter and also a pioneer of Romanticism, he is most celebrated for facilitating the emergence of modern art.

Born1775 Covent Garden, London, United Kingdom
Died: 19 December 1851, Cheyne Walk, London, United Kingdom
Known for: Paintings
Popular works: The fighting Temeraire, The slave ship, Fishermen at sea, Wreckers, Coast of Northumberland,” c. 1834
Joseph Mallord William Turner also known as JMW was an oil painter, watercolorist, and printmaker. Conceived in London in 1775, he studied at the Royal Academy of Arts from the age of 14 and opened a gallery at 29 years old. A loner and eccentric, he committed his life to his art, finishing in a gathering of 550 oil paintings, 2,000 watercolors, and 30,000 works on paper at the time of his passing (death) in 1851.


At the beginning of his profession, Neo-Classical painting—a style portrayed by “respectable simplicity and quiet glory”— was the overall genre of art. In this vein, Turner made topographical paintings; he, as different artist of his time, looked to portray his subjects as exact and realistic as could be allowed. This approach to art is clear in his early works, including Fishermen at Sea, his first oil painting for the academy. At the point when Turner exhibited this piece in 1796, it was met with great recognition, furthering his career as an artist.

Following the accomplishment of his early exhibitions, Turner visited continental Europe so as to home his art. Notwithstanding formal studies at the Louver, he found motivation in idyllic views of Switzerland. When he came back to England, he was so motivated by landscape painting that he started sketching in oils while outside—a techniques that would later in the end be adopted by the Impressionists.

It was also during this time that he began experimenting with color, brushwork, and even subject matter. This shift in focus culminated in compositions that blended sublime views of nature with glimpses of industrialization and championed Romanticism, a movement that rejected traditional perspectives on painting.

“A master of history, landscape and marine painting, he tested the style of the old masters, trailblazing in technique and subject matter,” the Tate Britain clarifies. “Turner regularly shocked his counterparts with his loose brushwork and vibrant colour palette while depicting the development of the modern world not at all like some other artist at the time.”

Important Characteristics


A key element of Turner’s painting style is his passion for color. In order to emphasize the emotion of a scene, he employed vivid hues that were rooted in realism yet radically bold. This preference for a chromatic color palette is evident in the radiant sunsets, reflective waters, and polychromatic clouds found in both his watercolors and oil paintings.

Turner was able to achieve such rich colors through trial and error. According to Winsor & Newton, an art supply manufacturer that worked closely with Turner, he “experimented endlessly with new pigments and mixing methods,” mixing “mainly gum arabic along with traces of gum tragacanth and varying levels of sugar or honey” with the latest pigments.

Unfortunately, however, his penchant for new pigments and paints meant that he favorited desired effect over long-term durability. Because of this, many of his works have faded, making preservation a priority for Turner conservators and collectors.


Notwithstanding an extreme use of colour, Turner likewise used an avant-grade way to deal with brushwork. Using broad strokes and rough movements, he added energy and emotion to his compositions. This technique ended up being a particularly powerful way to imply speed or movement. In Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbor’s Mouth, for instance, Turner’s loose brushwork catches the drama and chaos suffered by a boat during a storm.

Much like his use of color, Turner’s unique brushwork was born out of experimentation. Sometimes, Christie’s notes, he wouldn’t even employ traditional painting tools, “eschewing his brush in favor of a palette knife or even his thumb to scrape and smudge the surface of his works.”


Turner employed vibrant colors and rough brushwork to capture the power and beauty of his subjects, which include landscapes, seascapes, and modern technology. Often, he combined these three muses into single paintings, like Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, his most famous masterpiece.

Doubling as a beautiful natural landscape and a study of motion, Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway shows a train crossing the Maidenhead Viaduct above the River Thames. As a hare races before it and a boat tranquilly floats below it, the sheer power of the locomotive is illustrated by swirls of billowing smoke and blurred forms.

Influence on Modern Art

While, today, most people view Impressionism as the catalyst of modern art, Turner’s paintings undoubtedly served as inspiration for Impressionist artists like Monet, who was introduced to his work in 1870. Because of Turner’s contributions to the movement, he is often referred to as a pioneer of modern art–even though he died over two decades before Impressionism emerged.

Additionally, traces of Turner’s influence can also be found in the oeuvre of American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler. According to the Tate Britain, “a pattern of themes and variations begun by Turner appears to have been developed in the artistic interchange between the younger artists Whistler and Monet.” These similarities culminated in Turner Whistler Monet, a major exhibition at the museum.

Modern artists’ penchant for Turner would even survive into the 20th century, with abstract expressionist Mark Rothko comically admitting similarities between his own paintings and those of Turner. “This man Turner,” he reportedly said, “he learned a lot from me.”

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