A ship consumed by a wave. A government office burning. The paintings of J.M.W. Turner are some of the most dramatic and intense of their time, and there is always more to them than meets the eye. Read on to discover the stories behind the artist’s most fascinating masterpieces.
Earlier versions of the descriptions of these paintings first appeared in 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die, edited by Stephen Farthing (2018). Writers’ names appear in parentheses.
Sun Rising Through Vapour: Fishermen Cleaning and Selling Fish (c. 1807)
In many ways, this relatively early work by J.M.W. Turner, who was born in 1775, is a traditional portrait of a pleasant, generalized scene. Established influences at work here include 17th-century Dutch marine artist Willem van der Velde the Younger and earlier Italianate landscapes by Claude Lorrain and Richard Wilson. These artists had a love of creating mood in a landscape and van der Velde and Claude developed a mastery of the effects of luminosity, atmosphere, light, and color—all central to Turner’s work. In this painting, Turner seems to take these influences and begins to move into a realm of his own. Sun Rising Through Vapour is filled with early versions of the perfectly captured atmospheric effects for which Turner is famed, with bright sun bursting through cloud to light up the water and glance off the boats and the fishermen at work on the shoreline. It seems that this painting does not depict a specific place, but it is painted with great affection and knowledge. Turner spent all his life living near water, be it rivers or the sea, and he had a deep love of watery places and subjects. He also spent some of his childhood with relatives of his mother who were fishmongers. In his will, Turner requested that this painting, along with his Dido Building Carthage (1815), should be hung in London’s National Gallery alongside his two favorite Claude paintings. Many art critics have said that, although Turner forged a startlingly new style, he never totally strayed from traditional roots, and perhaps his bequest is proof of just that. (Ann Kay)
The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to Be Broken Up (1839)
J.M.W. Turner loved this work and wrote: “No considerations of money or favour can induce me to loan my Darling again.” His scene is a poignant memorial to the graceful, tall-masted warships of the Royal Navy and a mourning for the great days of British naval power. It shows the Fighting Temeraire—famed for her heroic role in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805—being towed up the River Thames to a shipyard to be broken up. As the modern steam-powered tug pulls the ethereal sailing ship to her fate, Turner testifies to the massive technological changes ushered in during his lifetime. The techniques and colors are typical of the later works that were to make him arguably the most revolutionary of landscape painters. This painting, which is in the collection of the National Gallery in London, demonstrates Turner’s fascination with elemental subjects: water, air, and fire. The sun sets in flaming colors in homage to the ship’s former glories, but it also shows Turner’s virtuoso skills.
The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to Be Broken Up was painted when the artist was in his 60s and was just about to move into his more abstract final phase. It is filled with the contrasts he loved: loose brushwork and thick paint on the sky versus detailed work on the sailing ship; the painting’s left side is cool in color, the right boldly hot; the commentary on the old world versus the new. Works like this show clearly how Turner began the breakdown of recognizable forms, the emphasis on light and color, and the emotional brushwork that would mark the work of the Impressionists and of countless abstract painters. (Ann Kay)
The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834 (1835)
J.M.W. Turner’s depiction of London’s Houses of Parliament in flames, inspired by real events, brings the viewer to the border between abstraction and reality. Turner had witnessed the fire firsthand from a boat on the River Thames. Though he began with some rough sketches, some months elapsed before he made a large-scale painting of the subject. The right side of the painting is dominated by the bridge, which leads across the Thames to the smoldering ruins on the other side. The towers of Westminster Abbey are visible in the background with the Thames and its reflections in the foreground. From a distance, however, it is difficult to recognize a realistic three-dimensional scene. The painting seems a powerful but undefined mélange of colors ranging from the bright gold and oranges at the left to the deep greens and purples to the right. The boats on the river fade into vague brown streaks. The final result is an embodiment of the Romantic sublime: the terror of fire and the radiant beauty of its light combine, putting the viewer into contact with the infinite forces of nature.
When Turner exhibited the painting at the British Institution in 1835, he knew that it would cause a stir. The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons flaunts the Western tradition of realistic visual depiction in order to reach for a deeper emotional response, and foretells the birth of abstract art. This makes the painting as dynamic to viewers today as it was nearly 200 years ago. It is part of the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Daniel Robert Koch)
Snow Storm—Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth (c. 1842)
J.M.W. Turner’s increasingly experimental work drew heavy criticism during the 1840s, and this painting was damned by some critics as “soapsuds and whitewash.” Influential contemporary art critic John Ruskin, however, who was Turner’s great champion, loved it.
The famous tale attached to this painting is that Turner had himself lashed to the mast of the steamboat Ariel that appears in the picture while it crashed about in a sea storm. This story seems unlikely, but it shows the artist’s passion for getting inside the heart of the natural world. Viewers of this painting, which is part of the Tate Collection in London, are sucked rapidly into the vortex-shaped composition that was much used by Turner, and the careering compositional lines induce giddy disorientation and chaos. This is an unusually subjective picture for Turner’s day, and the fairly limited color palette and crazily merging swaths of water and light evoke a dreamlike state. But still Turner is in control of every well-observed element—only he, with his knowledge of color and light, would recall that the fires burning below deck need to be shown in that lemon-yellow shade created by looking through a curtain of snow. At the vortex’s epicenter, a steamboat is tossed about perilously, used symbolically as in the Fighting Temeraire, but here specifically reflecting Turner’s belief that man is helpless at the mercy of nature’s vast forces. Turner apparently said of this work: “I did not paint it to be understood, but I wished to show what such a scene was like.” (Ann Kay)
River Scene, with Steamboat (c. 1826)
Although linked in most people’s minds with oils, J.M.W. Turner is regarded by many as the father of watercolor landscape painting. Watercolor afforded the artist a way to perfect his craft throughout his life, and studies painted in this medium would often form the basis of large oil works. Watercolor helped Turner to understand how to portray the landscapes that he loved so much, and to advance stylistically, because it allowed such a free exploration of the effects of color and light.
This work belongs to a period, from about 1814 to 1830, during which Turner traveled around Britain and Europe, sketching landscapes as he went. He made his first visit to Italy a few years before painting River Scene, with Steamboat, and experiencing the light abroad made his colors purer and his lighting more natural. Turner inspired Monet and Pissarro, and the French (or at least, many of the French) regard him as the greatest of English painters. In this work, minimal brushwork captures the scene perfectly. A few light strokes indicate the steamboat’s watery reflections, while opaque gouache deftly picks out foreground figures and distant rocky outcrops; the whole is infused with a convincing outdoor light. The technique is spare, and, typical of Turner, some areas are more detailed than others. Yet the scene has a real sense of perspective, space, and distance. Turner also liked to mix the old and the new, and here a steamboat from the age of industry and engineering chugs through a gentle pastoral scene. River Scene, with Steamboat is part of the Tate Collection in London. (Ann Kay)