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Joseph Mallord William Turner

(1775 - 1851)

English Romantic landscape artist, Joseph Mallord William Turner, commonly known as the “painter of light”, was regarded as one of the founders of English watercolor landscape painting.


Joseph Mallord William Turner was born on April 23, 1775 in Covent Garden, London, England to Mary and William Marshall, a barber by trade. His mother displayed signs of emotional instability early in Joseph’s life, and was institutionalized in 1799 until her death in 1804. 


Although Turner never received a formal education in his early years, his father taught him the basics at home. In 1785, most likely due to his mother’s illness, he was sent to live with his uncle in Brentford, west of London on the banks of the Thames, where he first expressed an interest in painting. A year later, he was enrolled in a school in Margate, Kent, where he spent much of his time drawing pictures that his father displayed in his shop window. The young artist was very focused on his painting, and after spending a year at the Royal Academy of Art, he was operating out of his own studio. He began selling works to print sellers for reproduction at the age of eighteen.


In 1796, an exhibition at the Royal Academy showcased Turner’s first oil painting entitled, "Fishermen at Sea". From then on, the artist enjoyed much success from those exhibitions and became an official member of the Academy in 1802. He taught there for many years and was proclaimed, ‘The Professor of Perspective’.


At twenty-seven years old, a yearning to see the world fostered his trip to Europe, starting with France and Switzerland. The artist studied in Paris. Then he visited Venice. However, Scotland inspired some his best works, such as ‘Fingal's Cave’, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1832. It later was cited as being "one of the most perfect expressions of the romanticism style of art".


Turner and his father maintained a tight knit relationship. His father even let go of the shop to become his son’s full time business manager until his death at eighty-five years old. After his father’s death, the artist suffered from bouts of depression. Turner was a father himself to children he had with his mistress, Sarah Danby. Although he never married her, he supported his children.


In the 1830s, Joseph Mallord William Turner created illustrations for popular poets such as Byron, Rogers, and Campbell, as well as others.  Over time, his paintings, which conveyed experimentation with color and effects of light, began to disregard traditional principals and became more abstract. The critics were harsh and his reputation took some blows. As the years wore on, his works seemed to resemble his personal life; unstructured and unstable. He began to drink a lot, often when he painted, and became somewhat of a recluse. Eventually, he adamantly refused to part with any of his paintings and exhibited for the last time in 1850. His behavior was judged erratic when he disappeared from his home and was found by his housekeeper hiding in a house in Chelsea.


Joseph Mallord William Turner died in his room on December 19, 1851, overlooking the Thames river. He bequeathed his entire collection of paintings, a collection of almost twenty thousand pieces, to his country, and requested that he be buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Movements associated with Joseph Mallord William Turner:
Landscapes, Romanticism


Art prints by Joseph Mallord William Turner
Rain, Steam and Speed The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up


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