William Turner

»An influential figure of Rhine Romanticism«

William Turner Portrait by William Daniell, 1827

© National Portrait Gallery, London; CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

A pioneer of modern art

The British artist Joseph Mallord William Turner was one of the most important landscape painters and watercolourists of his age and beyond. With his unique way of capturing the light, the atmosphere and the individual moment, he influenced generations of Impressionists and opened up new approaches for contemporary art. His first visit to the Rhine ignited in him a profound fascination with the Middle Rhine Valley and was integral in shaping his newly acquired perspective on light and colour.

A giant among artists, single-minded and uncompromising, extraordinarily prolific, revolutionary in his approach, consummate at his craft, clairvoyant in his vision.

Mike Leigh, Director of the film »Mr. Turner«

A young shooting star

William Turner is born in London on 23rd April 1775. He grows up in modest circumstances. His father – a barber and wig-maker – recognizes William’s artistic potential very early on and holds first exhibitions of his son’s work in his barber’s shop. Initially Turner devotes himself to architectural and landscape studies of his local area. His burgeoning talent gains him entry to the prestigious »Royal Academy« art school in London where from now on he pursues his studies and exhibits his work. At the age of 18 he has his own studio. His reputation as an artist grows with his success, so that in 1802 he is accepted as a full member of the Academy. Five years later they appoint him Professor of Perspective.

Turner’s book of engravings »Liber studiorum« illustrates the interplay between realistic depictions and the idealized landscapes of Neoclassicism. It comprises a series of 71 mezzotint engravings produced in the period between 1807 and 1819. With this project Turner was attempting to raise the status of landscape painting as a universal genre which also encompassed other categories such as history painting.

The urge for the unseen

As a gifted draughtsman, Turner has a steady flow of commissions and quickly achieves considerable prosperity. His early works are executed entirely in the style of traditional, neo-classical painting. He studies the Old Masters, artists such as Titian, the Dutch Masters and above all, Claude Lorrain. But he is not satisfied with merely imitating his heroes. He wants to surpass them and experiments with dramatic representations of light in all its many manifestations. He has a growing desire for the unseen and the beauty of untamed nature. After the turn of the century, it is this urge that inspires Turner to set off and explore the rest of Europe and gather new experiences and inspirations. This decision is to have a profound influence on his artistic perception.

William Turner – The Castellated Rhine

The Castellated Rhine © akg-images

In »The Castellated Rhine« Turner collages together different views of different Rhine motifs, primarily castles and landscape elements, particularly from the areas of Kaub and Oberwesel. Pfalzgrafenstein Castle is easily identifiable. The name of the painting is taken from Lord Byron’s satirical work »Don Juan« which includes the lines: And thence through Berlin, Dresden, and the like, until he reached the castellated Rhino: »Ye glorious Gothic scenes ! How much ye strike all phantasies, not even excepting mine!«. An engraving of the painting was made in 1833 and used as the title-page vignette for the 17th and final volume of the works of Lord Byron.

A romantic relationship

Inspired by Lord Byron’s narrative poem »Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage« and recently published travel guides, Turner makes the Rhine the focus of his first trip abroad in 1817. He travels via Belgium and the Netherlands to the region of the Upper Middle Rhine Valley. Here, instead of the idyllic scenes and cultivated landscapes so beloved of the Baroque age, the artist – now 42 years old – finds the unadulterated, authentic natural surroundings that romanticists long for. Turner is fascinated by the sublime landscape along the great river, extolled by poets. He fills three sketchbooks with drawings of rugged cliffs, the play of light on water and picturesque towns. Years later in his London studio he works them up to impressive watercolour paintings. Turner was to return to the Rhine a total of eleven times – an intimate relationship which originated exactly 200 years ago.

In seinen Skizzenbüchern fertigte Turner nicht nur Zeichnungen der Ihn umgebenden Landschaftskulisse an. Insbesondere im kleinsten Format, dem »Itinerary Rhine Tour Sketchbook«, hielt er seine Gedanken zu wichtigen Stationen schriftlich fest. Auch Skizzen von Personen, Tieren und Wetterverhältnissen häufen sich. Diese vielseitigen Eindrücke machen deutlich, wie intensiv Turner die augenblickliche Atmosphäre erlebte und für sich verinnerlichte.

Mache dir selbst ein Bild von Turners Reiseverlauf. Begebe dich unter »Journey 1817« direkt auf die Spuren des Malers oder verschaffte dir unter »Artworks« eine Übersicht.

Travel in summer – Paint in winter

Year after year he embarks on new journeys, especially to southern Europe. The artist’s routine sees him set off on his travels during the warm summer months to produce sketches and colour studies in new locations. In winter he works in his London studio, creating large-format paintings based on his drawings. He draws on his wealth of preparatory material containing his deeply internalized impressions of the journey to produce exciting compositions – some true to nature, others as collages, exaggerated and romanticized.

The example of the Boppard town wall illustrates how closely related a sketch and a watercolour can be. In this case Turner follows the main contours and the composition of the drawing. Only in the finished painting does he add life to the buildings, depict depth of field or insert foreground figures.

Light and colour as central compositional elements

Turner increasingly moves away from detailed depictions of landscape and architecture. Instead he records nature in an atmospheric way. With the help of colour experiments, he portrays his own, unconventional impression of reality. With his »dissolution of reality« and diffusion of colours, the artist earns harsh criticism and incomprehension from the conservative public of his day. His supporters, on the other hand, praise his depiction of light in all its different facets and nuances. With this style of painting Turner was more than 25 years ahead of the Impressionists. It is not without reason that the »painter of light« is now considered a pioneer of modern art.

This series of gouache studies of Ehrenbreitstein fortress at Koblenz was produced in about 1839 at a later stage in the artist’s life. The drawings’ intense, almost impressionistic features reveal Turner’s masterful sense of atmospheric colour. Hard contours dissolve and merge elegantly with the powerful colours of the subject. It seems almost like a memory, a thinking back to the exceptional experiences and atmospheric light conditions that affected Turner so deeply on his travels.

Turner’s Legacy

Turner dies on 19th December 1851 at the age of 76. He is buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. With 100 paintings, almost 200 oil studies and more than 19,000 sketches, watercolours and notes, he leaves behind an impressive oeuvre.