Joseph Mallord William Turner, an English painter, born in London, April 23, 1775,. died in Chelsea, Dec. 19, 1851. His father was a hairdresser in Maiden lane, Covent Garden, and in this neighborhood the painter passed his childhood. After a year or two of schooling, during which he occupied himself more with sketching from nature than with books, he was employed by the engraver John Raphael Smith to color prints, and afterward he put in skies, backgrounds, and other accessories for architectural designs. Dr. Munro gave him and Girtin access to his collection, and bought their water-color sketches. In 1789 he became a student at the royal academy, and in 1790 he exhibited a water-color "View of the Archbishop's Palace, Lambeth." Other works depicting scenes in the neighborhood of London followed, and with each year he showed increasing power and originality. In 1793 he was engaged to illustrate Walker's " Itinerant " and the "Pocket Magazine;" and during the next five or six years he made sketches in many parts of England, besides giving lessons in drawing and devoting much time to illustrating books. In 1799 he was elected an associate of the academy, and in 1802 an academician.
He had hitherto been best known as a water-color painter, and had confined himself chiefly to representations of English or Welsh scenery. He now produced in oil such subjects as " The Fifth Plague of Egypt," " The Army of the Medes destroyed in the Desert by a Whirlwind," and "The Tenth Plague of Egypt;" but these were less popular than his " Dutch Boats in a Gale," " Fishermen upon a Lee Shore in Squally Weather," or "Falls of the Clyde," which afforded a field for the display of the surpassing excellence of his representations of marine scenery and of water under all conditions. In 1802 he visited France, and commemorated his arrival there by a picture of "Calais Pier;" and thenceforth at irregular periods he made extended tours through France, Switzerland, and the Rhine land, the fruits of which appeared in numerous sketches, drawings, and finished pictures. In 1807 he was elected professor of perspective to the royal academy. His works may be divided into three periods. The first extends to 1802, and covers the time employed chiefly in painting English scenes in water colors, and in studying the works and methods of his English predecessors. The second period, from 1802 to 1829, shows the effects of foreign travel and study of the great continental masters.
His desire to rival and if possible to surpass Claude Lorraine led to the publication in 1808 of his Liber Studiorum, the superiority of which over the Liber Veritatis of Claude does not however afford a fair test of the comparative merits of the two painters; Turner's studies being elaborate and careful illustrations of all the principal forms of landscape composition, while Claude's are but incidental memoranda of pictures. In further competition with Claude he painted his "Sun rising through a Mist," "Crossing the Brook," "Apuleia in search of Apuleius," "Dido building Carthage," and some others of less note; but his individuality soon broke through the shackles of mere imitation, and from 1815 he worked according to his own ideas, indifferent to the examples of preceding masters. The variety of subjects he attempted during the 12 years previous to this time exhibits the originality and audacity of his genius. Not content with the production of works like "The Shipwreck," " The Wreck of the Minotaur," and "The Snow Storm - Hannibal crossing the Alps," which presented with incomparable power the elements in their wildest fury, or like the " Edinburgh from Calton Hill" and "Falls of Schaffhausen," he ransacked Lempriere's dictionary for subjects, painted humorous pieces, such as a "Country Blacksmith" disputing upon the Price charged to the Butcher for Shoeing his Pony," and even attempted sacred history, having in 1803 exhibited a "Holy Family." From 1815 his conceptions expanded with his increasing observation; and after his first visit to Italy in 1819 his style underwent a material change, light instead of dark now predominating in his pictures.
His return from his second visit to Italy in 1829 begins his third period, when he employed an entirely original style. His "Bay of Baise," " Ulysses deriding Polyphemus," "Caligula's Palace and Bridge," "Childe Harold, or Modern Italy," "Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying - Typhoon coming on," "The Fighting Témeraire towed to her last Moorings," and other works produced within this period, represent the highest efforts of landscape painting in composition, in color, and in the general vein of poetic sentiment which pervades them. The change in his style of coloring, dating from this second visit to Italy, consists in an increased diffusion of light proceeding from the more illuminated parts of the landscape, and forming a bluish haze which contrasts too strongly with the surrounding portion in shadow. From 1833 this diffusion of light becomes more and more vertical, and from 1839 the vertical streaks are apparent in all his pictures. Every illuminated point is changed into a vertical line, the elongation being generally in exact proportion to the brightness of the light.
Dr. E. Liebreich, ophthalmic surgeon of St. Thomas's hospital, London, in a lecture before the royal institution, March 8, 1872, attributes this change to a change in Turner's eyes, developed during the last 20 years of his life. After he reached the age of 55, Dr. Liebreich believes, the crystalline lenses of his eyes became dim, dispersed light more strongly, and consequently threw a bluish mist over illuminated objects. The aspect of nature gradually changed for him, and he reproduced what he saw. After his last visit to Italy in 1840, and during the last ten years of his life, the tendency toward brilliancy of light and color became the most marked feature of his style; and, disregarding individuality of form or local color, he made light with alr*its prismatic varieties the sole object of his studies. In one department of Kis art, that of designing from nature for illustrated works, Turner remained in the highest request nntil the close of his life; and in none of his productions does he appear more truly great than in his finished drawings and engraved designs.
Among the most famous of these are his " Rivers of England," " Rivers of France," " England and Wales," "Scenery of the Southern Coast," and the exquisite illustrations of the poems of Rogers, Byron, Scott, and others, in all of which he shows a knowledge of landscape in its infinite variety of forms superior to that of any other artist. Fine line engravings of large size have also been executed from some of his most remarkable paintings; and, as if conscious that his reputation was destined to rest in a great measure upon this class of his works (an anticipation which has partially proved correct, as many of his pictures, owing to a careless use of pigments and varnishes, are rapidly losing their effects and crumbling to decay), he devoted much time to retouching the proofs, adding and altering the details down to the minutest twig; and all of his pictures engraved during his lifetime were executed under his own supervision. From 1790 until his death he contributed to every academy exhibition except three, sending altogether 259 pictures. - Turner never married, and exhibited an eccentricity which, whether real or assumed, subjected him to many injurious aspersions.
One of his most prominent characteristics was a love of mystification, under the influence of which he worked and travelled alone, often concealed his abode for months from his most intimate friends, and died finally after a protracted absence from London in lodgings at Chelsea, where he was known under the name of Brooks, his legal adviser being the only friend acquainted with his abode. He bequeathed the bulk of his large fortune to found an asylum for decayed artists, to be called "Turner's Gift," and such of his pictures as were in his possession to the nation. His intentions were partially thwarted by the unskilful manner in which the will was drawn; and while his pictures, drawings, and sketches have been secured to the nation, the remainder of his property, with the exception of £20,000 appropriated to the royal academy, was divided among his next of kin. The oil paintings, numbering upward of 100, and comprising specimens of his style from the outset to the termination of his career, are in the national gallery.
Two of them, "The Building of Carthage," which he esteemed so highly that he is said to have announced his intention of being buried in it, and "Sun rising through a Mist," he directed should be hung next to prominent works by Claude. The drawings, studies, and sketches, numbering altogether upward of 19,000, have been cleaned, mounted, and arranged by Mr. Ruskin. Turner wrote a poem in blank verse entitled " The Fallacies of Hope," extracts from which, for the most part " destitute of rhyme, rhythm, or reason," were frequently appended to the titles of his pictures in the royal academy catalogues. - The prominent position which Turner occupies is largely due to John Ruskin, whose " Modern Painters" contains an exhaustive analysis of his works. His remains were buried in the crypt of St. Paul's, beside those of Reynolds, and his statue by McDowell was erected in the cathedral in 1863. The only extended biography of Turner is by Walter Thornbury (2 vols., London, 1862; new ed., 1874).