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Turner and the Evolution of Painting

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Arts
Wordcount: 3510 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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19th Century Art

Turner and the Evolution of Painting

JMW Turner, a preeminent English painter whose elevation of landscape painting and technical prowess directed the course of painting in the nineteenth century. The previous statement if read by Turner’s ghost would validate a life intensely focused on honing his craft even if it meant to spite everything else. 

Through a keen interest in the natural world Turner was able to probe scientific discovery for uncommon connections in the visual arts.   Painting was his life – every moment for Turner was a chance to bring that experience to the canvas. JMW Turner’s experimental composition and contemporary subject matter bridge classical academic notions of art to the new optics of 19th-century industry.

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Unquestionably Turner was a towering figure in the realm of painting throughout the nineteenth century where he remained well past his death in 1851[1]. It should be said that initially Turner was deeply impacted by late 17th century masters, none more so than Claude Lorrain[2]. Widely considered the champion of illumination within his 17th-century contemporaries[3]. Lorrain realized a gap in the approach to rendering the sun in a realistic manner. His paintings illustrate the quality of light akin to the manner of the reality in which we experience the light’s casted influence on the coloration of our lives. Lorrain acknowledged the sun would blind us in seconds if you engage it directly and its precise spherical qualities appear to us through the shroud of an atmosphere. Lorrain saw the importance of cast, so often was the presence of the sun rendered as a more basic accouterment to composition rather than a key factor that dictates tonality and vision.

Turner’s early response to Lorrain was emulating his structured draughtsman-like compositions, evidenced in Crossing the Brook (fig 1) which mirrors Claude Lorrain’s The Finding of Moses (fig 2). At a thumbnail’s view the two are near identical in design, however, the subject matter between the two are intensely stark. Turner uses the mythic stage of Lorrain’s work to depict Devon in 1810 complete with the completely modern inclusion of a copper mill tucked away in the background. Turner’s landscapes weren’t inhabited by gods or mythological creatures, they were inspired by the real people of that landscape or place depicted as they were in their own time.

While Turner would borrow topics of history, mythology and biblical narratives popular among 17th-century artists, his overall inception of the subject matter was highly avant-garde for the time. The quality of luminosity both connects and separates Turner’s early near-imitations and future works from the classical aesthetics expressed to him from the French Academy of Art[4]. Turner’s extrapolation on Lorrain’s tendencies became highly individualistic compared to his predecessors in terms of subject matter and compositional design.

Obviously, Turner was decidedly attracted to the formal qualities of Lorrain’s realistic treatment of light. On Turner’s first viewing of Lorrain’s Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba at a collector’s home, he immediately appeared visibly shaken exclaiming through tears that “I shall never paint like that”[5]. Turner would eventually glean Lorrain’s technique for lifelike luminosity as repurposing it as a foundation for his lifelong study of the interaction of color and light.

The Claudian compositional structure eventually adopted by Turner utilizes the similar means of suggesting of the sun’s light as a means to run tonal gradient and linework leading to a central focal point to give picture plane depth. (fig 3) Whereas Lorrain’s more literal geometric implementation of a line is much more calculated such as the 90 ° angle created at the intersection of the centermost vertical pillar of light with the descension of the waves reclining backward into the horizon. Turner’s gradual and intuitively suggestive colors illustrate the obscuration of light in its journey by atmospheric giving non-matter an opaque form and shape(fig 4). Turner uses this illusionary particulate effect to emulate plane depth rendering a realistic interaction of non-matter and light. The naturalistic quality of Turner’s landscapes came from a lifetime of keen observation of his surroundings allowing him to open up from a Claudian grid-like approach to perspective. When Turner looked for inspiration, he preferred to experience the moment firsthand remarking “I travel to see, not to paint. The painting comes later.”.  

Turner’s work found the new sublime in the transition of winded sail giving way to the age of steam. Modern man had found new ways to harness the most terrifying and humbling aspects of nature which meant that there were new lines to be drawn with how we see ourselves in relation to nature. Turner visualizes Europe’s early march towards industrialization, finding fertile content in the exploration of man’s new place in the world.

Turner was very progressive in that he allowed his academic foundation to be influenced by the wave of new technologies and science being discovered in 19th century Europe[6]. The encroachment of industrialization was quick and fast moving, replacing the layered charm of the old world with brutalist cast iron efficiency. Turner embraced iron and steam, believing them to have strong patriotic connotations related to England’s success through innovation[7]. He was one of the first painters to adopt this pervasive aspect of English society choosing not to edit out elements of human experience that don’t line up with the traditional notions of beauty in the genre landscape paintings up until that point.

Instinctively Turner realized that art could work in tandem with science and literature to shape our understanding of the world. Turner’s invitation to the Royal Society at age 26[8] meant that he was on the ground floor of new scientific breakthroughs regarding, among a wide range of topics, including the study of steam power.

Despite its widespread use, theories on the scientific reaction occurring within steam engines were a mystery to mid-19th-century scientists. Father of thermodynamics[9] Sadi Carnot solved the riddle, giving a now-famous dissertation experienced by Turner on the mechanics of boiler heat flow and its interaction with the cold area of a condenser[10].  Carnot found that moment of interaction between the two extremes to be the key component of that reaction – finding that “The greater the temperature difference the more power is generated.”

Turner’s compositions can be analyzed as a visual counterpart for Carnot’s theories – exploring steeply contrasting extremes of hot orange and yellows meeting tonal contrasts of cool blues akin to the expression of two unlike elements such as fire and water imposed on each other. Turner was endeavoring to understand a new animal of cast iron and rivets, which in many ways was pulling at the same threads of renaissance masters like Michelangelo or DaVinci who studied cadavers to gain a deeper knowledge of anatomy.

Turner was always interested in the underpinnings of natural phenomenon a topic of great popularity amongst Royal Society scholars. Opportunities for cross-pollination between disciplines steeped Turner’s work in contemporary realism. Mathematician Mary Somerville an acquaintance introduced to Turner through scientist Michel Faraday was working on a revolutionary new understanding of electromagnetic fields, mapping their occurrences visually for the first time[11]. She postulated correctly how the beams of the sun could render a magnetic field around the earth. Somerville along with Faraday had been one of the first scientists to describe and interpret this phenomenon, and through conversation, Turner incorporated their understanding on the canvas.

The mapping of electromagnetic waves greatly fascinated Turner, to him it was though a new secret world had been discovered. Turner’s Snow Storm, Steam Boat off a Harbor’s Mouth structures the vaporial windswept fog and mist akin to the visuals in her magnetism experiments – giving a sense of order to the severity of the composition. The tendrils of foam reach out in a descending circular order closing around a central iron steamer. The way in which hair-like dashes of color reach inward to an object of metal was precisely the way in which scientists demonstrated polarity by the reorganization of iron filings in the presence of a magnet.

Through his new understanding of magnetism, Snow Storm alludes to Somerville’s research in an accurate and prophetical manner. The initial mapping of electromagnetic fields while groundbreaking, wasn’t immediately considered a discovery of great impact on everyday life – Turner quite disagreed.

Iron which is a natural ferromagnet and a common component in polarity experiments was impressed to Turner as being a metal that responds to the magnetic fields around it[12]. Snow Storm is not just structured by electromagnetic fields, but it is more than likely the cause of the predicament in which the steamboat crew in Snow Storm. Based on Turner’s newfound understanding of magnetism he paints an inquisitive question: how can a ship made from a naturally magnetic material rely on a electromagnetically sensitive compass.

In 1854 the RMS Tayleur otherwise known historically as the “first Titanic” made her final and maiden voyage in the waters between Great Britain and Ireland hours after its launch[13]. The area of departure was especially rocky and temperamental in weather, requiring efficiency and precision when chartering a course. The Tayleur was one of 893 vessels to have shipwrecked in that region alone[14].

Steamboat crews had long complained about difficulty trusting the accuracy of compasses when ships had hulls of iron. This coupled with poor loading and weight distribution meant that on an average night you could expect to see at least 1-2 shipwrecks[15]. Snow Storm eerily predicts manner of issues sailors were beginning to have as steam boats became more common for shipping and travel. Turner’s sublime challenges nature in new ways presenting a dichotomy of resilience of industry against the fragility of mankind in the face of nature.
 The intersection of Turner’s technical studies of atmospheric haze and modern industrial symbolism culminate in his late masterpiece Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway. Turner’s work responds to a time now galvanized by the industrial revolution.  In addition to the physical world changing before his eyes, social and economic order were reshuffling. 

Painted 7 years before the artist’s death, the world that Turner once knew had largely disappeared, shifting his own attitudes to the movement becoming less enamored with the remarkable transformation of England and more skeptical of progress in the context of civilization’s impact on the natural world. 

Rain, Steam and Speed’s locomotive, a monument to connection, is incredibly divisional in this frame with the railway incising earth and sky for the sake of industry and convenience.  Asymmetrically jutting from the center the locomotive barrels toward us the sense of inertia and speed enhanced by the fading of the train’s body through blushed perpendicular brushstrokes to emulate motion blur.

In a very abstract way Turner revisits Lorrain’s structure of centralized composition (fig 3). Turner utilizes curved vertical and horizontal brushstrokes leading the eye to the train’s point of emergence which is merely suggested at by quick sculptural applications of brown and yellow (fig 6).  Taking the place of Lorrain’s sun, the railway and it’s vanishing point are the lynchpins of this composition.  Turner’s painterly technique became looser as he developed stylistically – in Rain, Steam turner relinquishes nearly every quality of precise objectivity.  Utilizing color that signifies both form and emotion over topographical tedium. The train emerges as the clearest figure in the composition – its smokestack sharpened in clarity suggestive of the viewers position in the frame. 

The clouds swirl around this steep railway, the atmosphere is forced to curl around the left-hand face of the bridge reaching out to grip and caress a manmade probe seated at the heavens.  This shroud of immaterial closes around a grand manmade accomplishment suggesting that despite even our greatest accomplishments – we are all eventually made low by nature.  While Turner the man is gone, his body of work endears greatly existing today as a monument of innovation.

One of Turner’s closest confidants John Ruskin wrote posthumously:

“The genius of Turner was exceptional, both in its kind and in its height and elementary modes of work. Although his art is beyond dispute authoritative, represents the best in example and exercise.  The general tenor of his design is entirely beyond the acceptance of common knowledge. – a master who crushed instead of edifying English schools”[16]. 

And so with his passing – much like the transition of sail to iron saw marks an end to the soul of English painting in the nineteenth century as it was understood for the 5 decades.

Turner’s revitalization of painting pushed the medium forward for Post Impressionists and beyond breaking academic barriers of how painting could done without rules – giving freedom to pursue art beyond limitations of a format or genre.  Where Turner’s late exploration of form and expression end, young artists like Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh continue the artists practice of intuitive and individualistic approaches to painting.  Turner in his final act puts a swirling voluminous gale air in the sails of painting carrying with it into the 20th century with a new sense of unfettered artistic freedom.


  • Carnot, Sadi, and Robert Fox. Reflexions on the Motive Power of Fire: A Critical Edition with the Surviving Scientific Manuscripts. Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1986.
  • Hamilton, James, and Joseph Mallord William. Turner. Turner and the Scientists: Tate Gallery, London Vom 3.3.1998-21.6.1998. London: Tate Gallery, 1998.
  • Hoffs, Gill. Sinking of RMS Tayleur – The Lost Story of the Victorian Titanic. Pen & Sword Books, 2015.
  • Lindsay, Jack. J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work; a Critical Biography. Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1966.
  • Ruskin, John. Works of John Ruskin, Volume 33 Nabu Press, 2012.
  • Shanes, Eric. Young Mr. Turner: the First Forty Years, 1775-1815. Yale University Press.
  • Smiles, Sam. J.M.W. Turner. British Artists. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press ; London : Tate Gallery, 2000.
  • Smiles, Sam. J.M.W. Turner: The Making of a Modern Artist. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007.
  • Somerville, M. “On the Magnetizing Power of the More Refrangible Solar Rays.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 116, no. 1/3 (1826): 132-39. 
  • Solkin, David H., Guillaume. Faroult, Tate Britain, Galeries Nationales Du Grand Palais, and Museo Del Prado. Turner and the Masters. London : New York: Tate ; Distributed in the United States by Harry N. Abrams, 2009.
  • The Life-boat, Or, Journal of the Royal National Life-Boat Institution. London: Charles Knight
  • Townsend, Richard P., J. M. W. Turner, Andrew. Wilton, and Philbrook Museum of Art. J.M.W. Turner, “that Greatest of Landscape Painters” : Watercolors from London Museums. Tulsa, Okla.: Philbrook Museum of Art in Association with the University of Washington Press, 1998.
  • Venning, Barry, and Joseph Mallord William. Turner. Turner. Berlin: Phaidon Verlag GmbH, 2003.

(Fig 1)    (Fig 2)

(Fig 3)

(Claude Lorrain, Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, 1648. oil on canvas, National Gallery, England)





(Fig 4)

(J.M.W. Turner, Snow Storm, Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps, 1812. oil on canvas, Tate, Britain)

(Fig 5)

(JMW Turner, Snow Storm – Steam Boat off a Harbors Mouth, 1842. oil on canvas, Tate, Britian)

(Fig 6)

(JMW Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844.  oil on canvas, The National Gallery, London)


[1] Jack Lindsay, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work; a Critical Biography. (Greenwich, Conn. New York Graphic Society, 1966), pg 216.

[2] Barry Venning, and Joseph Mallord William. Turner. Turner. Berlin: Phaidon (Verlag Gmb, 2003), pg 47.

[3] Ibid., 48.

[4] Lindsay,  Turner – Critical Biography, pg 33.

[5] Venning, Turner, 37-8.

[6] Sam Smiles, J.M.W. Turner : The Making of a Modern Artist.( Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2007) pg 168.

[7] Ibid., 96.

[8] Lindsay,  Turner – Critical Biography, pg 33.

[9] James Hamilton,  Turner and the Scientists: Tate Gallery, London Vol 3.3.1998-21.6.1998. (London: Tate Gallery, 1998). pg 18.

[10] Sadi Carnot, and Robert Fox. Reflexions on the Motive Power of Fire: A Critical Edition with the Surviving Scientific Manuscripts. (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1986) pg 210.

[11] Mary Somerville, On the Magnetizing Power of the More Refrangible Solar Rays.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (116, no. 1/3 (1826). pg 132-39.

[12] Hamilton, Turner and Scientists, pg 71.

[13] Gill Hoffs, Sinking of RMS Tayleur – The Lost Story of the Victorian Titanic. (Pen & Sword Books, 2015). pg 11.

[14] Charles Knight, The Life-boat, Or, Journal of the Royal National Life-Boat Institution. (London:, 1856), pg 5.

[15] Hoffs, Sinking of RMS, pg 12

[16] John Ruskin, Works of John Ruskin, Volume 33. (Nabu Press, 2012.), pg 339.


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