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Honors Art History Artist Booklet Project

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By: Zack Verdin

Honors Art History

Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Father of Modern Art

Joseph Mallord William Turner has been described as the "father of modern art." Especially later in his career, Turner used loose brushwork and vibrant colors to portray the modern world.  He was born in London on April 23, 1775.  His father was a barber and a wigmaker, and Turner intended to follow his father in the family trade.  However, his sister died at the age of 5 and his mother developed mental illness. During that time, Turner was sent to live with relatives.  Turner began making engravings and moved to sketches of the English countryside, which his father hung in his shop.

Turner was accepted into the Royal Academy in 1790.   He also studied and worked with architects, including Thomas Malton, and Turner described him as "my real master." Turner was most interested in architecture but was encouraged to continue with watercolors and landscapes. His first important commissions were for architectural and topographical watercolors.  Turner helped establish landscape painting as a genre of art, and he also incorporated the modern industrial era into his paintings.  He often used ships and trains in his art. Turner became very wealthy from numerous commissions and good investments, but he lived a very reclusive life, even using his girlfriend’s last name so he would not be recognized. Turner died on December 19, 1851 and is buried in St. Paul's Cathedral. He left instructions to use his fortune to set up a charity for "decayed artists," and he bequeathed his finished paintings to the National Gallery.  Most of Turner's paintings are now located in the Tate Britain, and several of his works are in the British National Gallery in London. 

Turner was considered part of the movement known as Romanticism. This was a movement in the arts and literature that originated in the late 18th century, emphasizing subjectivity and the individual.  However, as Turner's career progressed, he began to show many of the characteristics of the Impressionists.  His loose brushwork and lightened palettes were indicative of Impressionist painting. Impressionists abandoned idealized forms and perfect symmetry, and instead focused on the impression of a moment -- how the world appeared to the viewer in a split second of life.  

Turner influenced many painters.  Turner included elements of modern life, such as ships and trains.  He influenced muralists such as Diego Rivera, contemporary artists such as Matthew Barney, and even the abstract painter Mark Rothko.  In fact, contemporary Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson made a series of color experiments, each inspired by a different Turner painting.

Frozen Assets by Diego Rivera

Untitled by Mark Rothko

Crown Zinc by Matthew Barney

Color Experiment 
by Olafur Eliasson

The Fighting Temeraire


Oil on Canvas

National Gallery of London

Dido building Carthage
Oil on Canvas
National Gallery of London


Norham Castle, Sunrise
Oil on Canvas
Tate Britain


Calais Pier
Oil on Canvas
National Gallery of London

Even though this painting is very disturbing, it is one of my favorites by Turner.  It depicts a scene where a ship captain throws sick and dying slaves overboard when he finds that he can only get reimbursed by insurance for slaves who are lost at sea.  This painting is late in his career, and you can see how Turner uses loose brushstrokes and very little form, in contrast to the earlier Calais Pier.  The viewer gets the impression that the slaves are considered nothing in this scene, and are overtaken by the captain's ambitions and the sea. The red in the background suggests that the captain has blood on his hands for the deaths of the slaves. Turner captures the horror of this moment so the viewer cannot forget it.

Slave Ship (Slaves Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On)
Oil on Canvas
Museum of Fine Art, Boston
This painting is my other favorite by Turner.  Again, it is late in his career and has many elements that would be used by the Impressionists, such as very little form and the depiction of the impression of a moment in time. We can see the power of the train, although the focus seems to be the dust and smoke from the train and the tracks, maybe to the future.  Turner was one of the first artists to use futuristic elements in his paintings, and as a result, he influenced many artists, even today.  
Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway
Oil on Canvas
National Gallery of London