Who are they?

Who is J.M.W. Turner?

Gaze upon the amazing shimmering landscapes of the first modern painter!

Joseph Mallord William Turner
Norham Castle, Sunrise (c.1845)
Tate

Turner was a landscape painter, traveller, poet and teacher. Many people consider him the first modern painter! The art critic John Ruskin said he was ‘the greatest of the age’.

Let’s see what you think!

Joseph Mallord William Turner
Self-Portrait (c.1799)
Tate

J.M.W Turner (the J.M.W stands for Joseph Mallord William by the way), was born in London in 1775. His dad was a barber, but Turner always knew he wanted to be an artist. When he was just 14 years old he became a student at the Royal Academy of Art in London.

One of the reasons that Turner was so extraordinary was because he liked to draw and paint ‘en plein air’, which means out in the open. This was unusual in Turner’s day as most artists painted in their studios. Turner took his sketchbooks, canvases and his paints out with him every day and painted what he saw. (He got through hundreds of sketchbooks – and created over 30,000 artworks altogether!!). The picture above is a page from one of his sketchbooks. It is a painting of London Bridge...do you think it looks like that now?

Turner drew and painted at different times of the day and in all weathers. He painted sunrises, sunsets, mist, rain and snow; which is why he is sometimes called 'the painter of light'.

Joseph Mallord William Turner
Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (exhibited 1842)
Tate

He sometimes went to crazy extremes to capture what nature looks and feels like. There is a famous story about Turner, that he once had himself tied to the mast of a ship during a very bad storm so that he could experience what it was like to have the waves crashing about him! No one really knows if this is true, but we like the story because Turner was such an extraordinary artist it sounds just the sort of thing he would do.

Turner is known as a Romantic artist. Romantic artists wanted to experience the terrible beauty of nature.

Turner also painted great moments in history and fantastic stories, which often challenged the styles of older painters.

Although lots of his paintings are full of light and look dream-like, he also made dark, epic paintings, which had great atmosphere, like the Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps. Do you prefer his light or dark paintings?

Even when he was older, Turner was a radical artist. He was interested in new technology – like steam ships and trains (which were exciting and new in the middle of the nineteenth century). What do you think he would paint today to show new technology?

People call Turner the first modern artist because his messy, expressive style and bright colours influenced lots of modern artists. Many of his later artworks look like impressionist paintings. This was a style of painting that happened in France many years after Turner was working. Compare Turner's painting above of the sea, to the impressionist painting of a river. Can you see how they are similar?

Turner still inspires modern artists. Artist Olafur Eliasson's Turner Colour Experiments look at the colour and atmosphere in Turner’s paintings. This one is inspired by one of Turner’s first oil paintings, Fishermen at Sea. Can you see the similar colours in both of them? Which one do you prefer? Do both artworks make you feel the same?

What do you think of Turner? Do you agree that he was ahead of his time and was one of the first modern artists?

Joseph Mallord William Turner
Sun Setting over a Lake (c.1840)
Tate

More to explore