Turner's talent was recognised early in his life. Financial independence allowed Turner to innovate freely; his mature work is characterised by a chromatic palette and broadly applied atmospheric washes of paint. According to David Piper's The Illustrated History of Art, his later pictures were called "fantastic puzzles." However, Turner was still recognised as an artistic genius: the influential English art critic John Ruskin described Turner as the artist who could most "stirringly and truthfully measure the moods of Nature." (Piper 321)
Suitable vehicles for Turner's imagination were to be found in the subjects of shipwrecks, fires (such as the burning of Parliament in 1834, an event which Turner rushed to witness first-hand, and which he transcribed in a series of watercolour sketches), natural catastrophes, and natural phenomena such as sunlight, storm, rain, and fog. He was fascinated by the violent power of the sea, as seen in Dawn after the Wreck (1840) and The Slave Ship (1840).
Turner's major venture into printmaking was the Liber Studiorum (Book of Studies), a set of seventy prints that the artist worked on from 1806 to 1819. The Liber Studiorum was an expression of his intentions for landscape art. Loosely based on Claude Lorrain's Liber Veritatis (Book of Truth), the plates were meant to be widely disseminated, and categorised the genre into six types: Marine, Mountainous, Pastoral, Historical, Architectural, and Elevated or Epic Pastoral. His printmaking was a major part of his output, and a whole museum is devoted to it, the Turner Museum in Sarasota, Florida, founded in 1974 by Douglass Montrose-Graem to house his collection of Turner prints.
Turner placed human beings in many of his paintings to indicate his affection for humanity on the one hand (note the frequent scenes of people drinking and merry-making or working in the foreground), but its vulnerability and vulgarity amid the 'sublime' nature of the world on the other hand. 'Sublime' here means awe-inspiring, savage grandeur, a natural world unmastered by man, evidence of the power of God–a theme that artists and poets were exploring in this period. The significance of light was to Turner the emanation of God's spirit and this was why he refined the subject matter of his later paintings by leaving out solid objects and detail, concentrating on the play of light on water, the radiance of skies and fires. Although these late paintings appear to be 'impressionistic' and therefore a forerunner of the French school, Turner was striving for expression of spirituality in the world, rather than responding primarily to optical phenomena.
His early works, such as Tintern Abbey (1795), stayed true to the traditions of English landscape. However, in Hannibal Crossing the Alps (1812), an emphasis on the destructive power of nature had already come into play. His distinctive style of painting, in which he used watercolour technique with oil paints, created lightness, fluency, and ephemeral atmospheric effects.
One popular story about Turner, though it likely has little basis in reality, states that he even had himself "tied to the mast of a ship in order to experience the drama" of the elements during a storm at sea.
In his later years he used oils ever more transparently, and turned to an evocation of almost pure light by use of shimmering colour. A prime example of his mature style can be seen in Rain, Steam and Speed - The Great Western Railway, where the objects are barely recognizable. The intensity of hue and interest in evanescent light not only placed Turner's work in the vanguard of English painting, but later exerted an influence upon art in France, as well; the Impressionists, particularly Claude Monet, carefully studied his techniques.
High levels of ash in the atmosphere during 1816 the "Year Without a Summer", led to unusually spectacular sunsets during this period, and were an inspiration for some of Turner's work.
John Ruskin says in his "Notes" on Turner in March 1878, that an early patron, Dr Thomas Monro, the Principal Physician of Bedlam, was a significant influence on Turner's style:
His true master was Dr Monro; to the practical teaching of that first patron and the wise simplicity of method of watercolour study, in which he was disciplined by him and companioned by Giston, the healthy and constant development of the greater power is primarily to be attributed; the greatness of the power itself, it is impossible to over-estimate.
On one of his trips to Europe, circa 1820, he met the Irish physician Robert James Graves. Graves was travelling in a Diligence in the Alps when a man who looked like the mate of a ship got in, sat beside him, and soon took from his pocket a note-book across which his hand from time to time passed with the rapidity of lightning. Graves wondered if the man was insane, he looked, saw that the stranger had been noting the forms of clouds as they passed and that he was no common artist. The two travelled and sketched together for months. Graves tells that Turner would outline a scene, sit doing nothing for two or three days, then suddenly, "perhaps on the third day, he would exclaim 'there it is', and seizing his colours work rapidly till he had noted down the peculiar effect he wished to fix in his memory."
The first American to buy a Turner painting was James Lenox of New York City, a private collector. Lenox wished to own a Turner and in 1845 bought one unseen through an intermediary, his friend C. R. Leslie. From among the paintings Turner had on hand and was willing to sell for £500, Leslie selected and shipped the 1832 atmospheric seascape Staffa, Fingal's Cave. Worried about the painting's reception by Lenox, who knew Turner's work only through his etchings, Leslie wrote Lenox that the quality of Staffa, "a most poetic picture of a steam boat" would become apparent in time. Upon receiving the painting Lenox was baffled, and "greatly disappointed" by what he called the painting's "indistinctness". When Leslie was forced to relay this opinion to Turner, Turner said "You should tell Mr. Lenox that indistinctness is my forte." Staffa, Fingal's Cave is currently owned by the Yale Center for British Art.
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