Joseph Mallord William Turner

London-born Joseph Mallord William Turner was the most versatile, successful, and controversial landscape painter of nineteenth-century England. Demonstrating mastery of watercolor, oil painting, and etching, his voluminous output ranges from depictions of local topography to atmospheric renderings of fearsome storms and awe-inspiring terrain. Though profoundly influenced by landscapists and history painters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Turner was an innovator who has been hailed as a forerunner of modernist abstraction. "

Joseph Mallord William Turner Self-portrait 1799
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Self-portrait 1799

Turner profited from extensive training both within and outside of the Royal Academy (RA) Schools. He was admitted to the RA's Plaster Academy at the age of fourteen, and to the Life Class three years later. He gained additional experience coloring prints, working as an architectural draftsman, and designing theatrical sets. In the 1790s, he participated in an informal "Academy," where he joined with Thomas Girtin and other young men in copying from prints, watercolors, and topographical drawings at the home of the physician and alienist Dr. Thomas Monro.
These early lessons in topography stayed with Turner throughout his life. His first exhibited paintings were carefully delineated watercolors of recognizable English monuments and landscapes. Although Turner would later develop an extensive visual vocabulary that ranged far beyond precise renderings, first-hand observations remained crucial to his working method. Over the course of five decades, he filled hundreds of sketchbooks with visual records of scores of tours through England, Scotland, and Wales, and around the Continent to Belgium, France, Holland, Italy, the Rhineland, Switzerland, and elsewhere. Turner relied on these on-site sketches to inform even his most highly imaginative paintings. For instance, The Grand Canal, Venice, exhibited at the RA in 1835, combines multiple viewpoints to present an impossible view of several Venetian landmarks.