Joseph Mallord William Turner – or simply J.M.W. Turner – was born in April 1775 in London, England, although his actual birthdate is not certain. He had a younger sister named Mary Ann who sadly passed away at the age of five. His father, William Turner, was a wig maker and a barber. Because of his mother’s mental health issues, the young Turner was sent to live with relatives in Western London. In due course, Turner became the most famous and successful British artists of all time with his breathtaking Romanticist landscapes and working with materials like watercolor, oil painting, and printmaking.
At only fourteen years of age, in 1788, he became a draftsman under the teachings of an architect, influencing his artwork throughout his entire career, as he included architectural constructions in many of his landscape paintings. One year later, Turner entered the Royal Academy of Arts in Somerset House, where they embraced a Classical approach to art. The president of the Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds defended the hierarchy of the themes approached by artists in their paintings. He considered artworks that worked with biblical subjects, mythology, historical events and literature subject were the noblest. After that came the genre paintings, meaning matters of the everyday life, which most often brought a virtuous sentiment. Lastly, in the lowest category, came still life, portraiture, and landscapes.
It became Turner’s mission to emerge landscape painting to the category of historical painting by using the same amount of expressive power and complexity. Working with watercolors was an excellent match for his travels, as he would go about Europe in search of different landscapes, a ritual he began in 1791. Turner took up oil painting by the mid-1790s and was inspired by marine seascapes by Dutch painters of the XVII century. The British artist was also influenced by two French painters: Nicolas Poussin, and Claude Lorrain – who included historical and mythological subjects in his grandiose landscapes, something Turner embraced in his work as well.
Turner’s most important subject became the “sublime,” which in his understanding meant the overpowering presence of nature and the insignificance of humankind regarding it. The artist would travel to places with untamed natural surroundings in the heart of Switzerland, and portrayed the immensely impactful views along with biblical themes, like the plague of Egypt. In 1819, after a tumultuous time in British history, Turner finally reached his dream location that he only knew from Lorrain’s paintings, Italy. In Child Harold’s Pilgrimage, the British painter depicts his idealized view of the Italian landscape based on a Romanticist poem – as a way to connect with the intellectuals of the time.
J.M.W. Turner was described as a short-tempered and awkward man. He had a strong accent, since he came from the working class, and would often confuse his students, who had a hard time understanding what he said. He died in December 1851, in Chelsea, London, as one of the wealthiest and most famous British painters, leaving his fortune to friends, family, and charity. Many paintings were given to the Nation, and he was buried next to Sir Joshua Reynolds, by his request. Turner once stated that his only secret to success was his hard work.