Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 – 1851) is one of the greatest landscape artists of all time and perhaps the most renowned British artist ever. His mastery in capturing the effects of colour and light made him famous as “the painter of light”; and his application of poetic and imaginative approach to landscape art, elevated the genre to rival history painting. Turner precisely captured architectural and natural details in his early works but in his mature stage, his compositions became more fluid with mere suggestion of movement. These abstractions are considered ahead of his time and were a forerunner to the artistic movement Impressionism. Know more about the art of J.M.W. Turner by studying his 10 most famous paintings.
#10 Rome, From Mount Aventine
This painting depicts the city of Rome from the Aventine Hill, one of the Seven Hills on which ancient Rome was built. It is one among several paintings of the city by Turner and on first being exhibited it was described by the Morning Post as “one of those amazing pictures by which Mr Turner dazzles the imagination and confounds all criticism: it is beyond praise”. Rome, From Mount Aventine was sold at Sotheby’s in London in December 2014 for £30.3m which, as of June 2016, is the auction record for Turner. It was also the highest price for any pre-20th century British artist ever sold at auction.
#9 The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons
On 16th October 1834, fire accidentally broke out in England’s Houses of Parliament leading to the biggest conflagration in London since the Great Fire of 1666. Like tens of thousands of Londoners, Turner too witnessed the fire. He used the sketches of the scene which he had drawn on the spot to create two famous canvases of the conflagration with the same title. Painted by J.M.W. Turner in the period he created some of his most renowned masterpieces, this painting is considered a captivating visual record of the event and is symbolic of nature’s power over man.
#8 Dido building Carthage
Full Name: Dido building Carthage, or The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire
Carthage was the capital city of the ancient Carthaginian civilization while Dido, according to ancient sources, was the founder and first queen of Carthage. In 1814, Turner began a series on Carthaginian subjects and this painting is one of its most famous. The subject of the painting is inspired by Aeneid, a Latin epic poem written by Virgil. It depicts the building of the North African city of Carthage with Dido being the blue and white figure on the left. In his early period, Turner emulated the achievements of French artist Claude Lorrain and this artwork is a direct tribute to Claude’s Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba (1648).
#7 Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute
J.M.W. Turner travelled extensively in search of inspiration for his work. He was particularly inspired by Venice, which he first visited in 1819. Turner’s love affair with Venice produced several masterpieces and this painting is the most famous among them. It captures the Grand Canal along with buildings of Venice; and is based on the artist’s sketches from his trips to the city. Turner’s command over marine painting, his brilliance as a colourist and his pristine ability to capture the effects of atmosphere and light, all come together in this renowned artwork.
#6 Norham Castle, Sunrise
Norham Castle is situated on the River Tweed on the border between England and Scotland. J.M.W. Turner first visited Norham in 1797 and over the years, he captured the castle in several well-known artworks. This painting was created in the mature stage of his career when his compositions became more fluid with mere suggestion of movement. These works were more appreciated by later generations. Norham Castle, Sunrise is considered one of Turner’s greatest paintings of light and atmosphere. While some regard the painting as an unfinished work, it is more widely viewed as proof of Turner’s genius. It is the most abstract and most modern of Turner’s paintings.
#5 The Dort
Full Name: Dort or Dordrecht: The Dort packet-boat from Rotterdam becalmed
J.M.W. Turner first visited the Netherlands in 1817. This painting shows a view of the harbour of Dordrecht, a city in western Netherlands. It is the finest example of the influence of Dutch marine painting on Turner’s work and a tribute to Dutch artist Aelbert Cuyp, one of Turner’s formative influences. On its exhibition, The Dort was hailed as “one of the most magnificent pictures ever exhibited” by the Morning Chronicle and Turner’s contemporary, English Romantic painter John Constable, called it the “most complete work of a genius I ever saw”.
#4 Hannibal crossing the Alps
Full Name: Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps
Hannibal is considered one of the greatest military commanders in history. He led his Carthaginian army over the Alps and into Italy to take the war directly to the Roman Republic. Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps in 218 BC is one of the most celebrated military achievements in ancient warfare. As much as this painting captures this historic event, it brings to the fore the destructive power of natural forces, a prevalent theme in many of Turner’s later works. Hannibal crossing the Alps, known for parallels between Hannibal and Napoleon, is one of the most ambitious and renowned artworks of Turner’s early career.
#3 The Slave Ship
Full Name: Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhon coming on
In the 1781 Zong massacre, 133 enslaved Africans were thrown into the sea to drown by the crew of the slave ship Zong. This was done partly to ensure the survival of the ship’s remaining inhabitants and partly to cash on the insurance on the slaves. This event is considered the inspiration behind this masterpiece, which was first exhibited on the same day as a meeting of the British Anti-Slavery Society. The painting depicts a ship struggling in the stormy sea while a number of bodies with dark skin, and chained hands and feet, are floating in water. The picture is blurry without defined brush strokes and Turner brilliantly uses colour to create a dramatic effect for the viewer. The Slave Ship focuses on the power of nature over man and the vices of the Industrial Revolution.
#2 Rain, Steam and Speed
Full Name: Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway
In this famous artwork, Turner masterfully combines the elements of nature and the industrial revolution. The painting depicts a train approaching the viewer at high speed. The rain blends into the steam of the speeding train to leave the powerful black engine of the locomotive as the only visibly sharp object on the canvas. The location of the scene is the Maidenhead Railway Bridge which crosses River Thames. Rain, Steam and Speed is an outstanding example of J.M.W. Turner’s late works, which gained in popularity with time to become his most cherished masterpieces and are considered a forerunner to Impressionism.
#1 The Fighting Temeraire
Full Name: The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up
HMS Temeraire was a 98-gun second-rate warship of the Royal Navy which is famous for its heroic performance in the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar between U.K. and the combined fleets of French and Spanish Navies. J.M.W. Turner depicts the warship, years after its glorious days, being pulled by a tugboat, to be broken into scraps. The painting pays a tribute to sailing ships as they were going to be replaced by steam-powered vessels. Turner uses symbolism, like the setting sun, to suggest the demise of the subject and its mortality despite its heroic past. Painted by Turner at the prime of his career, The Fighting Temeraire is his most famous painting and the one he referred to as his “darling”. In 2005, it was voted as Britain’s favourite painting in a poll organized by the BBC.