The Painter of Light

Book Notes

It is one of the great tragedies of being an artist to display enough skill to become famous, but, through lack of talent, tact, or simple luck, not be placed in the first tier of talent. One artist whom I had never previously encountered, J.M.W. Turner, is the subject of recent book by Franny Moyle, simply titled Turner, is the subject of this week’s review.
Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in 1775 in London, England. Although baptized in May of that year, he always kept his exact date of birth, if he knew it, a secret because he found the ability to alter his age at will convenient for when he would later obtain commissions.
His earliest years showed little promise; he was the son of a barber and a woman who suffered from recurrent bouts of mental illness, and he never underwent an official apprenticeship to become a painter.
However, he ingratiated himself with enough artists to develop his own style. This led to some controversy; his early work lacked originality, as one contemporary critic noted, “The way he acquired his professional powers was by borrowing, where he could, a drawing or picture to copy from, or by making a sketch of any one in the Exhibition in the morning, and finishing it at home.”
Nonetheless, he was eventually admitted to the Royal Academy of Arts and by his late-twenties he was a wealthy man who oil and watercolor paintings fetched princely sums.
Around this time, he took advantage of an armistice in the Napoleonic Wars and toured the continent. His visit to the Swiss Alps would come to push him further into naturalistic imagery with an emphasis on landscapes.
When he returned home, however, he had to negotiate a tumultuous family life. Among the most interesting parts of this biography focus on Turner’s personal life.
He repeatedly had to navigate the bureaucratic difficulties of finding a hospital to care for his mother, and his multiple mistresses bore him children whose education he provided for. His father, on the other hand, had slowly transformed from a parent into the role of accountant, secretary, and occasional dinner butler.
Luckily, Turner was a workaholic and his prolific output at his Queen Anne Street gallery guaranteed him financial security throughout his life. By the 1820s, he was the most popular painter in Britain and well known in continental Europe and America.
1829 marked a sharp turn in his life, though. That was the year his father died and Turner was now obliged to care for himself. It is no coincidence that the day after his father’s burial he drafted his first will.
Although a period of darkness in his personal life, Turner began to experiment more with light in his painting, and his work now began to anticipate the psychological aspects of color in the Impressionists.
This new turn in his art was not well-received by the public. Although his mistresses and servants attended to some of his domestic needs, Turner, never the friendliest of people, became increasingly withdrawn due to the criticism.
For the last twenty years of his life, he was a recluse, rarely emerging from his home, refusing to make repairs on his property, neglecting meetings at the Royal Academy, and maintaining a second household under an assumed name.
Towards the end of 1851, Turner had not appeared in public for months. His solicitor eventually found him at his second home, delirious and on the precipice of death. Turner died a few days later. The circumstances of his final years (living with a mistress in a dilapidated home would not do in proper Victorian England) were hushed up, and Turner was buried with honors at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
In the past century and a half, Turner has fluctuated in the public’s attention, but this new biography goes a long way in proving his talent. Included with the text are multiple full color images from throughout his career.
She also weaves in interpretations of how his personal life affected his painting, without the risk of becoming an armchair psychologist. Although nowhere near as famous today as he was in his own lifetime, Ms. Moyle’s biography goes a long way in reviving the reputation of this neglected artist.
Robert Bolton can be reached with comments or suggestions at [email protected]

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