Turner The Sea and the Alps 06.07. 13.10.2019

Sea and moun­tain were of major im­por­tance to the world-famous Bri­tish artist J.M.W. Turner. In Lu­cerne he studied the unique in­ter­play be­tween light, weather phe­no­me­na, lake and moun­tains.

“I can­not tell why Turner was so fond of the Mont Rigi ...”

John Ruskin (art his­to­rian, ad­mi­nistra­tor of Turner’s estate, 1819–1900), 1856

Lucerne —
a magical city

Twi­light: an ele­gant lady with a little dog ob­serves a fisher­man haul­ing in his nets. As she does so the Chapel Bridge, the fa­mous land­mark of Lu­cerne, dis­solves in the veil of the blue mist.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) was one of the most outstanding painters of his time. His enthusiasm for Switzerland was such that he visited the country six times between 1802 and 1844. On Turner‘s first visit, Lucerne was just a place he passed through on his way south. From 1841 to 1844 however, the British artist returned here every year.

Loca­tion Ad­van­tage:
lake and moun­tains

Turner found count­less spec­ta­cu­lar mo­tifs in Lu­cerne. A trans­por­ta­tion hub in Cen­tral Switzer­land, the city of­fered him com­fort, boat trips and over­whelm­ing moun­tain peaks.

Franz Xaver Schu­macher, Map of Lucerne, 1790/9 Chalco­graphy, 4 parts, each 71 x 52 cm, Staatsarchiv Luzern, PL 5258/1-4

Lucerne around 1792: Ten years before Turner’s first visit, 4,300 people lived in this small town. Thanks to its strategically good location on the course of the River Reuss and close to the Gotthard Pass, Lucerne swiftly became a place of transhipment between North and South. By 1850 the population had doubled to about 10,000.

First Steam­boat, ‘Stadt Luzern’, 1837 Leaflet Hotel Schwanen, Print, ZHB Luzern Sondersammlung

As of 1834, a coach travelled through the Gotthard Pass regularly, and as of 1837 the first steamboat, called Stadt Luzern, toured across Lake Lucerne. Around 1870, about 70,000 passengers and up to about 20,000 tonnes of goods had been transported on the Pass route.

J.M.W. Turner, The Chapel of William Tell, for Rogers’s ‘Italy’, c. 1826/27 Graphite and water­colour on paper, 24.1 x 30.6 cm, © Tate, London, 2019

The Swiss myths about self-determination and resistance to foreign powers all played out around the Lake Lucerne. Here you will find the mythical site of the foundation of the Eidgenossenschaft or Confederation and the Rütli Meadow, and the Wilhelm Tell legend also took place here. In 1804 Friedrich Schiller’s play of the same time was premiered in Weimar by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and became an ideal tourist advertisement for Central Switzerland.

The watercolour shows the Tell Chapel on the Tell Slab. It was here that the heroic freedom fighter is said to have jumped from a boat in a storm so to escape from the henchmen of the imperial governor Gessler. Samuel Rogers commissioned the painting, along with another 24, in 1826 for his volume of poetry entitled ‘Italy’. However he could not afford to pay the 50 Pounds Sterling per watercolour and only borrowed them. Ultimately, it was Turner’s illustrations that contributed to the success of the book.

Stormy Times—
Re-Ordering Europe

Liberty, Equality, Fraternityaround 1800 the demands of the French Revolution motivated people all over Europe. The enlightened bourgeoisie debated the idea of a new, more just society. Philosophy, law, literature and art were topics of conversation. The French Revolution was not followed by a stable democratic order. Instead Napoleon seized power and this led to the wars named after him: European states confronted each other in changing alliances. The wartime turmoil placed many restrictions on free travel, but during the first brief Peace of Amiens in 1802, tens of thousands of British travellers invaded the continentamong them, Turner.

In different European countries the desire for a republic in which everybody had the same rights gave rise to uprisings and revolts. As a consequence, Switzerland was founded as a modern federal state in 1848.

J.M.W. Turner, Lucerne with Pilatus beyond, c. 1841/44 Graphite, water­colour and gouache on paper, 24.4 x 30.9 cm, © Tate, London, 2019
Schwanenplatz with landing place for steamboats, c 1865 Photography, ZHB Luzern Sondersammlung Signatur: LSa.7.1.6.p

Tourism flourished, and Lucerne developed at enormous speed: the banks of the lake were raised so as to build an elegant lake promenade and fashionable hotels. One of the first was the fancy Hotel Schwanen, visible here at the right edge of the picture. Turner stayed there in 1841. The steamboats leave from Schwanenplatz to across Lake Lucerne. Turner went on numerous excursions. He also availed himself of the hotel’s ideal location so as to paint watercolours of the Rigi Massif and the lake in all weather conditions from the window of his comfortable hotel room.

Beginning of Tourism

Tech­ni­cal in­nova­tion and Roman­ti­cism changed how people saw the Alps. From be­ing an obs­tacle on the way South, they be­came a travel des­ti­na­tion in their own right.

Popet Pius VII is carried in a sedan chair crossing the Alps in April 1799. ETH-Library Zurich, Image Archiv

Around 1800 travelling across the Alps was a tedious undertaking. The journey had to be well planned because of having to pass through countless kingdoms, principalities and city states. Travellers were tossed about in coaches, sedan chairs and boats, while longer stretches had to be covered on foot. Towards the end of the 18th century, better paths and hostels were gradually engineered. The first travel guides that were based on diaries were published.

At the time, travellers packed sketchbooks and watercolour boxes in their baggage, just as they did cameras at a later date.
Art, and in particular Romantic literature, glorified the Alps, making them the essence of untouched nature and inspiring people to go there.

The Grand Tour—an educa­tional jour­ney for aris­to­crats

Since the time of the Renaissance, the education of young European aristocrats had been rounded off by a long journey. That so-called grand tour took them through Central Europe, Spain, Italy, and to the Vatican. Along the way, the Alps constituted a kind of throughway that was as dangerous as it was frightening. The grand tour also involved flirtations, parties, and adventures. It was mainly intended to serve their career and the formation of international networks. In the course of the 19th century, this travel privilege was availed of increasingly by the swiftly growing middle class.

“We landed at Weggis, and if each man, boy and mule­keeper who at­tacked us had been a wasp and each word a sting, Weggis had pos­sessed our re­mains. We were lite­ral­ly in­fest­ed by, dogged and danced around by these im­por­tu­nates!”

Jemima Morrell's Diary (1832–1909), 1863
J.M.W. Turner, Lucerne from the Walls, 1842 Water­colour on woven paper with scratching out, 30.5 cm × 45.9 cm, National Museums Liverpool, Lady Lever Art Gallery

In the early 19th century, the bourgeoisie developed into a significant social force. More and more people were in a position to travel. Thomas Cook organised the first package tours in England in 1841, and the first to the Alps in 1863. Jemima Morrel describes the nascent tourist excesses in delightful anecdotes. 

But critical voices were also to be heard. In 1856, the scholar John Ruskin, collector and administrator of Turner’s estate, lamented that Chamonix had become an “amusement park”, and he prophesized a dismal future for Lucerne, as “a series of symmetrical hotel buildings along the lake front”.

Turner en route

Through­out his whole life Turner liked to go on sketch­ing tours. He wanted to see na­ture with his own eyes, to expe­rience wind and weath­er at close range.

Turner went on his first such sketching trip when he was 16 years old. After that he was on the road almost every summer, first in England, Wales and Scotland, and later, when the political circumstances permitted, on the continent. On countless trips along the Rhine or the Moselle, in France, Italy or Austria, Turner collected views of landscapes and towns and cities.

The sketches and water­co­lours he did on his travels were part­ly worked into paint­ings during the winter months in Lon­don. Many of them served as models for port­folios and books, for ex­ample about the rivers of Eng­land and France.

J.M.W. Turner, Morning amongst the Coniston Fells, Cumberland, 1798 Oil paint on canvas, 122.9 × 89.9 cm, (c) Tate, London, 2019

Turner’s early landscapes are characterized by subdued, dark colours, such as muted shades of grey, brown, blue and green. Those colours were in general use at the time.

J.M.W. Turner, Traeth Mawr, looking East towards Y Cnicht and Moelwyn Mawr, c. 1799–1800 Graphite and watercolour on paper, 54.5 × 76.4 cm (c) Tate, London, 2019

Lakes and mountains in dramatic weather and light conditions: early trips to Wales and Scotland provided Turner with raw material for decades.

J.M.W. Turner, Landscape Composition with a Ruined Castle on a Cliff, 1792–93 Graphite and watercolour on paper, 21.4 × 27.3 cm (c) Tate, 2019

Ruins were extremely popular in Turner’s day. There is scarcely a ruin in Great Britain that he did not see or draw.

Turner’s early landscapes are characterized by subdued, dark colours, such as muted shades of grey, brown, blue and green. Those colours were in general use at the time.

The Alps in­stead of the Louvre

On his first trip to con­ti­nen­tal Europe in 1802, Turner was so drawn to the Alps that when in Paris all he could think of was tra­vel­ling on­wards.

Rohn Robert Cozens, Fluelen on the Lake of Lucerne, c. 1777/79, © Tate, London, 2019 Gouache, graphite and water­co­lour on paper, 32.2 x 43.3 cm, © Tate, London, 2019, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/cozens-fluelen-on-the-lake-of-lucerne-d36669

Even before his first trip to Switzerland, Turner was familiar with paintings of the Alpine mountains. Works by his painter colleagues John Robert Cozens and Phillipp James de Loutherbourg were presumably decisive for his choice of route. Only on his return journey did Turner take the time to study the Old Masters in the Louvre in Paris.

J.M.W. Turner, The Schollenen Gorge from the Devil’s Bridge. Pass of St Gott­hard, 1802 Graphite, water­co­lour and gouache on paper, 47 x 31.4 cm, © Tate, London, 2019

Turner daringly omits his standpoint, the Devil’s Bridge, thus conveying a feeling of hovering. By making a stop at an important point on the Gotthard route, he also presented himself as a traveller.

The dynamism and drama of this painting are heightened by the cloud-laden sky: thick clouds gather in the ravine, with finer cloud formations hovering above them.

The tiny figure in the centre consists of just two black spots: shoulders and head. This figure is standing at a precarious spot and is really tiny, a nothing in the face of the overwhelming size and threat of the mountain massif.

Turner squeezes the Schöllen Ravine into the upright picture format so that the vertical dominates. A trained architectural draughtsman, the artist displays his knowledge by depicting the soaring cliff face.

“I have for­tu­nate­ly met with a good-tem­pered, funny, little, elderly gentle­man, who will pro­bab­ly be my travel­ing com­pa­nion through­out the jour­ney. He is con­ti­nual­ly pop­ping his head out of the win­dow to sketch what­ever strikes his fan­cy, and be­came quite ang­ry be­cause the con­duc­tor would not wait for him whilst he took a sun­rise view of Mace­rata. (…) From his con­ver­sa­tion he is evi­dent­ly near kin to, if not ab­so­lute­ly, an artist. Probably you may know some­thing of him. The name on his trunk is, J.W. or J.M.W. Turner!”

Letter of a young English­man travel­ling on business journey from Rom to Bologna, 1829
J.M.W. Turner, The Pic de l’Oeillette, Gorges du Guiers Mort, Chartreuse; Looking back to St Laurent du Pont, 1802 Gouache, graphit and watercolour auf paper, 56.5 x 72.8 cm, © Tate, London, 2019

The Swiss landscape had not yet been dealt with exhaustively in painting, unlike that of Italy, France or The Netherlands. It thus offered scope for experimentation and innovation.

Repeatedly Turner depicted glaciers as if they extended beyond the edge of the painting.

J.M.W. Turner, Blair’s Hut on the Montenvers, 1802,  Graphite, watercolour and gouache on paper,  31.4 x 46.8 cm, © Tate, London, 2019

His Fribourg Sketch Book dates from 1841. Turner captured the silhouette of the medieval town numerous times.

J.M.W. Turner, Fribourg, um 1841, Graphite and watercolour on paper, 23.4 × 33.4 cm, © Tate, London, 2019

Goldau became famous because of a devastating landslide in 1806. Natural forces, like ruins, were a popular motif in the Romantic era.

J.M.W. Turner, Goldau, with the Lake of Zug in the Distance: Sample Study, c. 1842–43, Graphite, watercolour and
pen on paper 22.8 x 29 cm, © Tate, London, 2019

The ruin of the Hohe Rätien castle seems ablaze in the evening sun.

J.M.W. Turner, The Entrance to the Via Mala, 1843, Watercolour and gouache on paper, 24.3 x 31 cm, © Tate, London, 2019

Turner was always fascinated by the force of water, as in a stormy sea or a roaring waterfall.

J.M.W. Turner, Falls of the Rhine, Schaffhausen, 1841, Graphite, watercolour and pen with scratches on paper, 22.8 x 29.2 cm, Sturzenegger-Stiftung. Museum zu Allerheiligen Schaffhausen

Zurich radiates a golden hew on the festive morning: Turner liked to paint cities in the morning or evening light when the buildings are veiled by the haze.

J.M.W. Turner, Zurich: Fête, Early Morning, 1845, Watercolour, graphite and scraping out on paper, 29 x 47.8 cm, Kunsthaus Zürich, Grafische Sammlung

Pocket-size pictorial ideas

Turner’s almost 300 sketchbooks testify to this artist’s constant search for motifs.

Turner’s most important companion was his sketchbook. It was small, light and easy to transport. On his travels Turner did pencil, chalk or watercolour sketches. On the basis of the sketches he further developed compositional and colour concepts for his watercolours. The ‘Lucerne Sketchbook’ comprises freehanded atmospheric watercolours of Lake Lucerne; in other books Turner also worked on architectural details such as church spires using a pencil.

J.M.W. Turner, Luzern, 1844 Spires and Heidelberg sketchbook, graphite on paper, 17 x 10.9 cm, © Tate, London, 2019

“Many are the times I have gone out sketch­ing with him. I re­mem­ber his scrabl­ing up a tree to ob­tain a bet­ter view, and there he made a co­loured sketch, I hand­ing up his co­lours as he wan­ted them.”

Clara Wheeler, the daughter of Turner’s friend W.F. Wells

Focus on land­scape

Turner up­gra­ded land­scape paint­ing: what used to be in the back­ground be­came the main mo­tif.

In Turner’s day the painting genres were ordered hierarchically: History paintings were the most highly ranked. They took up historical, religious, mythical or literary themes, glorifying rulers and battles. In second place came the portrait. Landscapes and still lifes, as depictions of inanimate things considered easy to paint, ranked lowest.

When Turner entered the Royal Academy in 1789, landscape painting was not taught there. His efforts to establish a corresponding chair failed. Instead he taught perspective as of 1807.

J.M.W. Turner, The Battle of Fort Rock, Val d’Aouste, Piedmont, 1796, 1815 Water­colour and gouache on paper, 69.6 x 101.5 cm, © Tate, London, 2019

A deep ravine; people plunging into the depths. But our gaze is drawn into the pictorial center, to the dramatic sky. Turner links the drama of nature and the precarious roadway with its human drama. Yet he has not painted a real event here. No battle took place at Fort Roch in the Aosta Valley in 1796, during Napoleon’s invasion of Italy. The fictional historical battle mainly served Turner to upgrade the landscape in the hierarchy of different painting genres.

“To look at Turner's is to look on na­ture her­self.”

Magazine of Fine Arts, 1833

For a long time in painting, landscape simply served as a setting for historical, mythological or biblical scenes. It only became a genre in itself during the Renaissance, and an independent motif in the 17thcentury. Claude Lorrain (1600–1682) and Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) still cite ancient Rome and Greece, but increasingly the landscape steals the limelight from the figures depicted. Around the same time, Dutch landscape painters were already turning their attention to their local surroundings which they depicted in a realistic style. Around 1800, Romanticism brought about a flowering of landscape painting. In the machine nature is assumed the role of an idyllic primal world.

Turner’s great model:
Claude Lorrain

The French painter Claude Lorrain was a great model for Turner, who studied his sun-drenched Roman landscapes in various museums. In the pencil sketches he did of them he noted down factual observations on colour scheme and composition.

In his estate Turner directed that two of his paintings be hung beside those by Lorrain in the National Gallery in London. Lorrain’s rural idyll with a mill is one of the two. In it the artist used the wedding of Isaac and Rebecca as an occasion to create an atmospheric landscape painting.

Claude Lorrain, The Mill (The Mar­riage of Isaac and Re­becca), 1648 Oil on canvas, 152.3 x 200.6 cm, Na­tional Gal­lery, London

Delight­ful hor­ror

In Roman­ti­cism land­scape be­comes a mir­ror of human emo­tions and long­ings.

In response to industrialisation, human beings turned to the landscape. Until then the aim had been to overcome land so as to reach a harbour, a town or at least the next hostel. Land served for cultivating foodstuffs and provided fodder for animals. In the machine age landscape gradually became a theme in itself: whoever could afford to do so fled from the polluted towns with their sooty skies.

The individual could find peace of mind by observing the sea and the mountains. Edmund Burke formulated the concept of the sublime using the term ‘delightful horror’, thus characterizing the era of Romanticism.

The viewers in their heated living rooms take delight in the imminent thunder and lightning and storms in the paintings. Turner was a master at staging the sublime. For this he availed himself of bad weather, ravines and spectacular pathways, but also symbols of industrialisation, such as steamships and train engines.

“The sub­lime seizes, the beauti­ful en­chants us …­”

Per Kirkeby citing Kant and Schiller (artist, 1938–2018), 1984
J.M.W. Turner, The Fall of an Ava­lanche in the Grisons, 1810 Oil on canvas, 135 x 166 cm, © Tate, London, 2019

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“The downward sun a parting sadness gleams,
Portenteous lurid thro' the gathering storm;
Thick drifting snow on snow,
Till the vast weight bursts thro' the rocky barrier;
Down at once, its pine clad forests,
And towering glaciers fall, the work of ages
Crashing through all! extinction follows,
And the toil, the hope of man—o'erwhelms.”

J.M.W. Turner, poem pre­sesn­ted with the paint­ing The Fall of an Ava­lanche in the Grisons, 1810

A new motif:

Turner never ex­perienced an ava­lance, but he repro­duced this natural event vivid­ly. In 1808 he read an article about an ava­lanche disas­ter in Grau­bün­den in which 25 people died in a hut. He also knew the ava­lanche paintings by Philipp James de Louther­bourg (1740–1812). A com­pa­rison with Louther­bourg shows that Tur­ner is more direct in every respect. While in Louther­bourg the hor­ror is re­flected in the faces of the flee­ing people, Turner’s masses of snow are aimed direct­ly at the viewer. Only the hut, destroyed by the boulders, speaks of man’s powerlessness in the face of the forces of nature. The momentum of the masses of snow is suggested solely by the white paint. Here for the first time the immediacy of Turner’s painting corresponds to the vehemence of the force of nature.

Philip James De Louther­bourg, An Ava­lanche in the Alps, 1803 Oil on canvas, 109.9 x 160 cm, © Tate, London, 2019

Pain­ter of the mo­dern world

Steam engines, elec­tri­ci­ty, newly dis­co­vered chemi­cal ele­ments: during Turner’s life­time new in­sight and in­nova­tive tech­no­lo­gies al­tered the world. This deve­lop­ment is ref­lect­ed in Turner’s paint­ings.

The industrial revolution began in England and changed the world as of the mid-18th century. Scientific discoveries and technological inventions go hand in hand. The experimental physicist Michael Faraday (1791–1867) tinkered with electricity and magnetism, Humphry Davy (1778–1829) discovered new elements and William Herschel (1738–1822) unknown planets. The Royal Society of Natural Science was in the same building as the Royal Academy of Arts.

Lectures on technology were extremely popular and were disseminated immediately in printed form. Ideas and discoveries were discussed in the salons. Turner only had to go from one room to another so as to satisfy his scientific curiosity. He debated with Faraday on pigment recipes and was a close friend of the astronomer and mathematician Mary Somerville (1780–1872).

J.M.W. Turner, The Hero of Hundred Fights, c. 1800–10, reworked and exhibited 1847 Oil on canvas, 90.8 × 121.3 cm, © Tate, London, 2019

Gear wheels, cabbage heads and crockery—Turner painted a foundry as a dismal utility room around 1805. ln 1847 he overpainted the workshop, adding dazzling light and the bronze statue of the Duke of Wellington, just released from the casting mould. With this unconventional depiction, Turner literally showed hero worship in a new light. Between 1805 and 1847 colour schemes and modes of painting were clearly distinguished from one another. They elucidated Turner’s development from his early style, with its dismal shades, to his late oeuvre, in which brush movement adds dynamism to what is being depicted.

J.M.W. Turner, Steamer and Lightship; a study for The Fighting Temeraire, c. 1838–39 Oil on canvas, 91.4 × 119.7 cm, © Tate, London, 2019

The wrecks in Tur­ner’s paint­ings are al­ways sail­ing ships. In ‘Fight­ing Te­mer­aire’ Tur­ner links the past with the fu­ture. The glo­ri­ous old war­ship can no longer sail on its own; it is be­ing towed up the Ri­ver Thames by a small com­pact steam­ship to be bro­ken up. In the past, Great Brit­ain ruled the waves; now it was a lead­ing in­dus­trial na­tion.

Steamships and locomotives are symbols of the modern world. Their sign is the cloud of smoke in the sky and their sound the stomping of engines. Turner was fascinated by the steam-driven transportation systems. In his marine paintings, depictions of ships on the high seas, he celebrated the triumph of steam power.

J.M.W. Turner, The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up 1838, 1839 Oil on canvas, 91 × 122 cm, © National Gallery, London, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0, https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/joseph-mallord-william-turner-the-fighting-temeraire

Where­as the sea is rough in the draft, in the fi­nal paint­ing it forms a smooth, re­flect­ing sur­face on which the two con­trast­ing ships make their ap­pear­ance. The low sun bathes the last jour­ney of the for­mer battle­ship in a me­lan­cho­ly light.

“At­mos­phere is my style.”

John Ruskin (art his­to­rian, ad­mi­nistra­tor of Turner’s es­tate, 1819–1900), 1856

The essence of Turner’s paint­ing are the ef­fects of the dif­ferent light con­di­tions. Smoke, steam, mist, rain, foam—they all only come into their own through light, which veils the ob­jects to the ad­van­tage of an over­all at­mos­phere. Turner pre­sents the colours as light phe­no­mena and not features of things.

In the eye of the storm

Bad weather was very much to Turner’s liking. His paint­ings are in­fused with lashing rain, spray­ing foam and dark threaten­ing clouds.

J.M.W. Turner, Rainbow over Loch Awe, c. 1844 Graphite, watercolour and scraping out on paper 22.4 × 28.6 cm, Private Collection

The first attempts to decipher weather scientifically coincide with the Little Ice Age. That extremely cold period stretched from the 15th to the 19th century, leading to failed harvests and famines.

In the age of the Enlightenment, reason became the one and only judging agent. In the course of that intellectual change, the weather also no longer seemed God-given, but became an interpretable natural phenomenon.

“Thurs. 25th. Heavy rain. Turner went on a sketch­ing tour.”

Maria Sophia Fawkes (from the collector family friends with Turner) in her diary, 1816

There are no cloudless skies in Turner’s paintings. Sometimes these are just a few delicate fine weather clouds, sometimes threatening dark formations, but they always structure the sky and add an atmospheric charge to what is depicted. The lecture given by the first cloud researcher Luke Howard (1772–1864) at the Royal Society had an impact on Turner’s painting. As of 1802 Howard began to put forward his discoveries: there are basically four cloud formations, namely, cirrus, stratus, cumulus and nimbus. This new knowledge immediately found its way into painting. As early as 1815 these types of clouds were being mentioned in handbooks for artists. The clouds in Turner’s paintings can be named and they enable conclusions to be drawn about the weather at the time.

J M.W. Turner, Rough Sea with Wreckage, c. 1840–45 Oil on canvas, 92.1 × 122.6 cm, © Tate, London, 2019

“… the great­est dif­ficul­ty to the pain­ter: to pro­duce wavy air, as some call the wind. To show that wind, one must give the cause as well as the ef­fect, be it with mecha­ni­cal strokes that have the strength of na­ture but are per­ma­nent­ly shackled.”

J.M.W. Turner, in his sketch­book, c. 1810

Air, smoke, clouds and water form a single blueish-grey mass in motion. In the visible rotating traces of the thrust of his paint application, Turner presents a parallel to the dynamism of nature. He depicts the cause and effect of the natural forces.

J M.W. Turner, Snow Storm — Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth making signals in Shallow Water, and going to by the lead, 1842 Oil on canvas, 91.4 × 121.9 cm, © Tate, London, 2019

With the subtitle 'The Author was in this Storm on the Night the Ariel left Harwich', Turner himself initiated the rumour that he had himself tied to the ship’s mast so as to experience the storm at first hand. However no ship of that name is known.

Through the story, Turner emphasised the act of experiencing weather with all one’s senses. Like the painter, the viewers too should feel, and not just see the storm. By shifting the perception to the centre of attention, he staged the sublime aspect of the steamship struggling against the storm.

The Turner System

Turner chal­lenged the visual habits of his con­tem­pora­ries. As a pro­vo­cative all-roun­der, he was as fa­mous as he was no­torious. In his pur­suit of paint­ing and his career he was un­compro­mis­ing.

“This gentleman has, on former occasions, chosen to paint with cream, or chocolate, yolk of egg, or currant jelly,—here he uses his whole array of kitchen stuff.”

Critic of the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy, Athenaeum, 14.05.1842
Richard Doyle, J.M.W. Turner, 1846 Woodcut, 8.5 cm x 10.5 cm, York City Art Gallery, York

Repeatedly Turner’s unusual art drew criticism and ridicule. He rarely made use of foodstuffs in his work, but certainly of unconventional tools, working his oil paintings and watercolours with his fingernail or the handle of his paintbrush. He was also interested in new colour pigments. In his early works he used organic and mineral paints. He also used industrial products as soon as they appeared on the market. Cobalt blue appeared in his clouds around 1810, chromium yellow around 1815 and emerald green around 1830. Towards the end of his life, Turner also adopted the newly invented tube paints.

J.M.W. Turner, Shade and Darkness—the Evening of the Deluge, 1843 Oil on canvas, 78.7 × 78.1 cm, © Tate, London, 2019

The Royal Academy

The rise of British art in Europe began with the foundation of the Royal Academy. Turner was indebted to that art academy throughout his whole life.

The Royal Academy was founded in 1768 by artists and architects and was based on the model of other art academies in Europe. Teaching at the Royal Academy consisted mainly of drawing after plaster casts, less often after live models. Classes were oriented totally around history painting, Turner had to teach himself oil and landscape painting. Turner benefited from this new powerful representation of British art. His career was quite unique. He entered the Academy at the age of 14. One year later, he showed his first watercolour, and in 1796 at the age of 21 his first oil painting ‘Fishermen at Sea’ at the famous Annual Exhibition.

In 1799 he became an associate member of the Academy having reached the prescribed age of 24. In 1802 he became a full member and was appointed professor in 1807. He worked at the Academy for 35 years, as professor for perspective and for a time as temporary director. His strong Cockney accent and his chaotic style, however, made his classes rather unpopular.

J.M.W. Turner, Fishermen at Sea, 1796 Oil on canvas, 91.4 x 122.2 cm, © Tate, 2019

Turner used every opportunity to present his paintings. His working rhythm was oriented around the Annual Exhibition at the Academy every spring. Using the sketches he did in the summer, he then developed oil paintings and large watercolours in the winter.

Over the course of the ‘varnishing days’, the paintings were completed by being given a transparent protective layer, the so-called varnish. This was a public occasion which Turner used to demonstrate his virtuosity. Sometimes he even altered his painting so as to outdo his rivals.

William Parrott, Turner on Varnishing Day, c. 1846 Oil on wood, 45 x 43.7 cm, Collection Museums Sheffield on long-term loan from the Guild of St. George

One an­ec­dote of 1832 became famous: Tur­ner had entered a marine piece for the ex­hi­bi­tion. When he came to the Aca­de­my, his pa­inting was hang­ing be­side John Const­able’s ‘Open­ing of Wa­ter­loo Bridge’, with its strong lu­mi­nous shades of red. With­out fur­ther ado, Tur­ner took a brush and paint­ed a red dot in the waves in the fore­ground of his own paint­ing. The next day he trans­form­ed the red dot in­to a buoy.

A brief history of the vernissage

The word vernissage is derived from the ‘varnishing days’, or from the French word for varnish, ‘vernis’, leading to vernissage—a term used today for an exhibition opening. Originally the works were not quite complete at the vernissage. The varnish, as a protective layer, covered the whole painted area and sealed it; sometimes just some white highlights were placed on this.

Turner's show­room

A marked busi­ness sense plus clever self-promo­tion—Turner’s eco­no­mic sys­tem was alto­gether mo­dern.

George Jones, Interior of Turner's Gallery: The Artist Showing His Works, c. 1852 Oil on millboard, 14 x 23 cm, The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, presented by Mrs. George Jones, the artist's widow, 1881

As a 13-year-old he was already showing watercolours in his father’s barber shop, earning his first small amounts of money. In 1804 he set up his own gallery so as to be able to present his works to an interest clientele at any time.

Turner’s system is an early example of artistic self-promotion; his showroom was a precursor of the artist’s museum. In his later years, Turner painted sample studies. Together with his agent Thomas Griffith, he was thus able to praise and sell motifs before the paintings were even painted.

J.M.W. Turner, Dido Building Carthage, 1815 Oil on canvas, 155.5 x 230 cm, National Gallery, London, Public Domain, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

As Turner was well aware of the significance of his oeuvre, he began to hold back works. In 1825 he refused to sell the painting ‘Dido building Carthage’ of 1815 because it was counted among his masterpieces. The painting of his showroom reveals how that picture occupied a central position until his death. The presentation not only served to promote sales, but was also a show of his prowess.
Turner used his last will and testament to consolidate his fame after death. He bequeathed about 300 oil paintings and 20,000 watercolours and drawings to the National Gallery, founded in 1824, on condition that a special gallery be built for them. According to his will, ‘Dido building Carthage’ was to be hung alongside the painting by Claude Lorrain whom he so admired.

The Birth of the Art Museum

In 1750 France opened the first painting gallery in the Palais du Luxembourg. The British Museum followed in 1759 and in 1779 the Fridericianum, Germany’s first museum. Prior to that, art was only on show to the public in churches and on public squares. As of the mid-18th-century, in the course of the Enlightenment rulers gradually made their collections accessible to the public. In 1793, at the time of the French Revolution, the Louvre was opened as the ‘central art museum of the Republic’. Napoleon had all the artworks looted throughout Europe presented in the Louvre so as to demonstrate France’s superiority. The artworks were elucidated by means of explanations, guided tours and cheap catalogues. Thus the art museum as we know it today was born.

In the early 19th century numerous civil-society initiatives followed aimed at setting up societies and clubs. The Kunstgesellschaft Luzern, for example, was founded in 1819 with the aim of compiling a picture archive for the general public. To this very day, that society is responsible for the Kunstmuseum Luzern.

Turner tended to work on numerous works simultaneously, therefore his estate consisted of countless unfinished paintings. The status of many of his watercolours is even more uncertain, as these included swift sketches, sample studies and also completed works. Turner’s works are not non-figurative in a modern sense. He may well have said that “vagueness is my strength”, but his reputation as an early abstract painter is based, at least partly, on the unfinished paintings exhibited after his death.

Despite his delight in experimentation Turner further developed a mode of painting that had emerged in the Netherlands in the 17th century: the atmospheric reproduction of wind, weather and light. Turner saw himself in the tradition of the Old Masters, whose works he studied and whom he encountered on an equal footing. The Impressionists may celebrate Turner as their predecessor, but to this day, art theorists debate whether and to what extent Turner was a modern painter.

J.M.W. Turner, Sun Setting over a Lake, um 1840 Oil on canvas, 91,1 × 122,6 cm, © Tate, London, 2019

Insi­der Tip—In the Thick of Things

Turner himself was rather reticent. His thing was the visual experience. So it is worth taking a close look. Although our first impression may be determined by the atmospherics, the paintings are rich in details that speak of the everyday and even conjure up sounds. For example, the two gunmen training their guns while women and children walk up the hill; a dog chasing ducks in front of the Rigi. And in that same picture, beside barges and carts a shepherd waits for himself and his animals to be shipped across the lake. What do you see?

J.M.W. Turner, The Rigi, Lake Lucerne, Sunset, um 1842 Watercolour and gouache on paper, 24.7 × 36.2 cm, Lowell Libson & Jonny Yarker Ltd