Turner. Horror and Delight. At LWL Museum für Kunst und Kultur.


Turner. Horror and Delight 8 November 2019 – 26 January 2020 LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur, Münster

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) was one of the most outstanding painters of his time. Shipwrecks in England, avalanches in Switzerland, landscapes in Italy suffused with light, and the ephemeral aura of a city – the horror and delight captured on canvas by Turner raise gooseflesh to this day.

... how happy is the landscape painter who is thrilled every moment by each change in nature...

J. M. W. Turner

Turner as traveller

Turner as Traveller

Throughout his whole life J.M.W. Turner liked to go on sketching tours. He wanted to see nature with his own eyes, to experience wind and weather at close range.

Having entered the Royal Academy at the age of fourteen, Turner’s classes consisted mainly of drawing plaster casts of figures or, more rarely, live models. Lessons concentrated on historical painting, so we may assume his landscape painting skills were self-taught.

Turner undertook his first sketch trip when he was just sixteen. From then on, he was on the road almost every summer, first within England, Wales and Scotland, and later on the Continent as well, when the political situation permitted.

J. M. W. Turner, Landscape Composition with a Ruined Castle on a Cliff 1792/93, 21.4 x 27.3 cm, Graphite and watercolour on paper, © Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, © Photo: Tate, 2019

Ruins were extremely popular in Turner’s day. There is scarcely a ruin in Great Britain that he did not see or draw.

J.M.W. Turner, Morning amongst the Coniston fells, Cumberland, 1798 Oil paint on canvas, 146.8 x 113.5 cm, © Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, © Photo: Tate, 2019

Turner’s early landscapes are characterised by subdued, dark colours, such as muted shades of grey, brown, blue and green. Those colours were in general use at the time.

J.M.W. Turner, Traeth Mawr, looking East towards Y Cnicht and Moelwyn Mawr, c. 1799 Graphite and watercolour on paper, 54.5 x 76.4 cm, © Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, © Photo: Tate, 2019

Lakes and mountains in dramatic weather and light conditions: early trips to Wales and Scotland provided Turner with raw material for decades.

Ruins were extremely popular in Turner’s day. There is scarcely a ruin in Great Britain that he did not see or draw.

The Alps instead of the Louvre

On his first trip to continental Europe in 1802, Turner was so drawn to the Alps that when in Paris all he could think of was travelling onwards.

Around 1800 travelling across the Alps was a tedious undertaking. The journey had to be well planned because of having to pass through countless kingdoms, principalities and city states. Travellers were tossed about in coaches, sedan chairs and boats, while longer stretches had to be covered on foot. Towards the end of the 18th century, better paths and hostels were gradually engineered. The first travel guides that were based on diaries were published.

Art, and in particular Romantic literature, glorified the Alps, making them the essence of untouched nature and inspiring people to go there.

At the time, travellers packed sketchbooks and watercolour boxes in their baggage, just as they did cameras at a later date or Smartphones today.

Even before his first trip to Switzerland, Turner was familiar with paintings of the Alpine mountains. Works by his painter colleagues John Robert Cozens and Phillipp James de Loutherbourg were presumably decisive for his choice of route.

The Grand Tour: Educational travel for aristocrats

Beginning in the Renaissance, a Grand Tour became de rigueur for rounding out a young aristocrat’s education. Soon a journey to the south became compulsory and included a list of obligatory locations and sights. This was the precursor of today’s tourism. The scions of the British aristocracy would typically travel from England by ship to the French coast, and from there via Paris and Lyon to the Provence and the Côte d’Azur, and then across the Alps to Italy and the Vatican. A similar itinerary was common for artists of the age, many of whom longed to visit Italy with its antique sites that had already inspired Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Claude Lorrain (1600–1682), Angelika Kauffmann (1741–1807) and many others.

When Turner saw an interesting motif during his first trip to the south, he would stop the coach or dismount from his horse. The coachman whiled away the time perched on a nearby stone, waiting like the rest of the passengers. Not until the return journey did Turner stop at the Louvre in Paris to study the old masters.

I have fortunately met with a good-tempered, funny, little, elderly gentleman, who will probably be my traveling companion throughout the journey. He is continually popping his head out of the window to sketch whatever strikes his fancy, and became quite angry because the conductor would not wait for him whilst he took a sunrise view of Macerata. (…) From his conversation he is evidently near kin to, if not absolutely, an artist. Probably you may know something of him. The name on his trunk is, J.W. or J.M.W. Turner!

Letter of a young Englishman travelling on business journey from Rome to Bologna, 1829
J.M.W. Turner, The Pic de l'Oeillette, Gorges du Guiers Mort, Chartreuse; Looking back to St Laurent du Pont, 1802 Gouache, graphite and watercolour, 56.5 x 72.8 cm, © Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, © Photo: Tate, 2019

When Turner sees an interesting motive, he lets the carriage stop or gets off the horse. Meanwhile, the coachman sits on a boulder and waits just like the rest of the travel companions.Only on his return journey did Turner take the time to study the Old Masters in the Louvre in Paris.

J.M.W. Turner, The Schollenen Gorge as viewed from the Devil’s Bridge. Pass of St Gotthard, 1802 Graphite, watercolour und gouache on paper, 47 x 31.4 cm, © Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, © Photo: Tate, 2019

Pocket-size pictorial ideas

Turner’s almost 300 sketchbooks testify to this artist’s constant search for motifs.

On his travels Turner did pencil, chalk or watercolour sketches. On the basis of the sketches he further developed compositional and colour concepts for his watercolours. The ‘Lucerne Sketchbook’ comprises freehanded atmospheric watercolours of Lake Lucerne; in other books Turner also worked on architectural details such as church spires using a pencil.

J.M.W. Turner, Lucerne, 1844 Spires and Heidelberg sketchbook, graphite on paper, 17 x 10.9 cm, © Tate, London, 2019

Many are the times I have gone out sketching with him. I remember his scrabling up a tree to obtain a better view, and there he made a coloured sketch, I handing up his colours as he wanted them.

Clara Wheeler, the daughter of Turner’s friend W.F. Wells

Lucerne: City of Magic

Lucerne was where Turner studied the unique interplay of light, lake and mountains under different atmospheric conditions.

Lucerne was where Turner studied the unique interplay of light, lake and mountains under different atmospheric conditions.

Thanks to its strategically good location on the course of the River Reuss and close to the Gotthard Pass, Lucerne swiftly became a place of transhipment between North and South.

First Steam­boat, ‘Stadt Luzern’, 1837 Leaflet Hotel Schwanen, Print, ZHB Luzern Sondersammlung

As of 1834, a coach travelled through the Gotthard Pass regularly, and as of 1837 the first steamboat, called Stadt Luzern, toured across Lake Lucerne. Around 1870, about 70,000 passengers and up to about 20,000 tonnes of goods had been transported on the Pass route.

Mount Rigi shimmers blue in the distance, wrapped in the golden yellow light of morning. High in the heavens a single star shines, which Turner scratched into the paper with a fingernail. More than thirty watercolours of the “Queen of the Mountains” bear witness to the British artist’s fascination with the rapidly changing light.

The Swiss myths about self-determination and resistance to foreign powers all played out around the Lake Lucerne. Here you will find the mythical site of the foundation of the Eidgenossenschaft or Confederation and the Rütli Meadow, and the Wilhelm Tell legend also took place here. Turner’s watercolour shows the town of Küssnacht.

On the way here from Immensee, the traveller passes through the “hollow way” made famous by Schiller’s play, William Tell: this is the place where the Swiss hero is said to have shot and killed the bailiff Gessler with a crossbow. In 1804 Friedrich Schiller’s play of he same time was premiered in Weimar by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and became an ideal tourist advertisement for Central Switzerland.

Turbulent times: The reordering of Europe

Liberty, equality, fraternity: the slogan of the French Revolution proclaimed values that moved the people of Europe around 1800. The enlightened bourgeoisie were calling for a new, more egalitarian society. Philosophy, law, literature and art were on everyone’s lips. Sadly, the French Revolution did not immediately lead to a stable, democratic order. Napoleon’s seizure of power sparked the wars named for him, as European nations fought one another in rapidly changing alliances. The wartime confusion put restrictions on free travel, but during the brief lull in hostilities brought about by the Treaty of Amiens in 1802, tens of thousands of British travellers — among them Turner — flooded the Continent. Subsequently, riots and revolutions broke out around Europe as people manifested their desires for republics in which all would enjoy equal rights. One of the results was the establishment of Switzerland as a modern federal state in 1848.

The middle classes became a powerful force in the early 19th century. People were increasingly able to travel and interested in visiting foreign countries. Thomas Cook organized the first package tour in England in 1841, and the first to the Alps in 1863, a new mode that was criticized from the outset. The scholar John Ruskin, art collector and the administrator of Turner’s estate, complained that Chamonix was becoming “a kind of Cremorne Gardens” and foresaw a bleak future for Lucerne as “a row of symmetrical hotels round the foot of the lake.”

Venice: city on the water

Turner’s works in which Venice seems to vanish more or less in fog or light evidence the artist’s talent in drawing architectural motifs.

J.M.W. Turner, Venice; Bridge of Sighs, c. 1840 Oil paint on Canvas, 86.8 x 117.1 cm, © Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, © Photo: Tate, 2019

Travelling abroad was once again possible as the Napoleonic Wars came to an end in 1815. Turner’s first trip to Italy in the summer of 1819 took him to Rome, Naples, Florence and Venice. Some one hundred years earlier, Antonio Canaletto had captured the City of the Doges with an almost photorealistic clarity, and etchings of his works were popular and widely available in London. Turner, who enjoyed comparing himself to famous colleagues to highlight his own mastery, may have been inspired to his detailed observation by his Italian predecessor.

One cannot leave Venice without immediately wishing to return!

Claude Monet
Venice: The Steps of Santa Maria della Salute, looking up to the Grand Canal, 1840 Graphite, watercolour und pen on paper, 22.1 x 32.3 cm, © Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, © Photo: Tate, 2019

And Turner returned. In 1819, 1833 and 1840, he spent a total of four weeks in the city on the water, producing more than five hundred sketches during this period.

Turner’s Landscapes

Turner’s Land­scapes

Turner upgraded landscape painting: what used to be in the background be­came the main motif.

In Turner’s day the painting genres were ordered hierarchically: History paintings were the most highly ranked. They took up historical, religious, mythical or literary themes, glorifying rulers and battles. In second place came the portrait. Landscapes and still lifes, as depictions of inanimate things, ranked lowest.

When Turner entered the Royal Academy in 1789, landscape painting was not taught there. His efforts to establish a corresponding chair failed. Instead he taught perspective as of 1807.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Battle of Fort Rock, Val d’Aouste, Piedmont, 1796, exhibited 1815 Gouache und watercolour on paper, 69.6 x 101.5 cm, © Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, © Photo: Tate, 2019

A deep ravine. People falling into the abyss. Yet in the middle of the picture, the viewer’s gaze is drawn to the drama in the heavens. Turner connects what is dramatic in nature, and on the hazardous road, with human drama. Here, however, he has not painted an actual event, as there was no battle at Fort Roch in Val d’Aoste in 1796 when French troops led by Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Italy. Turner invented this battle mainly to reinforce the position of landscape painting within the hierarchy of genres.

Turner's great model: Claude Lorrain

Turner studies Lorrain's sunlit, Roman landscapes in various museums. In his pencil sketches he makes objective observations of coloring and composition.

In his will, Turner ordered that two of his paintings must hang next to certain works by Lorrain at the National Gallery in London. One of these is Lorrain’s Pastoral Landscape with a Mill. In it the artist used the wedding of Isaac and Rebecca as an occasion to create an atmospheric landscape painting.

Claude Lorrain, The Mill (The Mar­riage of Isaac and Re­becca) 1648 Oil on canvas, 152.3 x 200.6 cm, Na­tional Gal­lery, London

For a long time in painting, landscape simply served as a setting for historical, mythological or biblical scenes. It only became a genre in itself during the Renaissance, and an independent motif in the 17th century. Yet the art of landscape painting did not reach its zenith until around 1800, with the advent of Romanticism, as nature took on the role of a pristine, ideal world in contrast to the dawning machine age. At the same time, publishers began commissioning picturesque landscapes as illustrations for popular books and travelogues.

Delightful Horror

In Romanticism, landscape becomes a mirror of human feelings and longings.

In the Romantic age, landscapes reflected human emotions and longings and, as a reaction to industrialisation, people became more interested in the beauty of the land. Those who could afford it escaped the polluted cities with their sooty skies and went to the countryside, itself a theme of increasing popularity. Wealthy people in their cosy salons enjoyed the thrillof a gathering storm seen in a painting.

Edmund Burke formulated the concept of the sublime using the term ‘delightful horror’, thus characterizing the era of Romanticism. Turner was a master at staging the sublime. For this he availed himself of bad weather, ravines and spectacular pathways, but also symbols of industrialisation, such as steamships and train engines.

J. M. W. Turner: The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons, 1810 Oil paint on canvas, 90,2 x 120 cm, © Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, © Photo: Tate, 2019

Poem pre­sen­ted with the paint­ing The Fall of an Ava­lanche in the Grisons, 1810 J.M.W. Turner

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“The downward sun a parting sadness gleams,
Portenteous lurid thro' the gathering storm;

Thick drifting snow on snow,
Till the vast weight bursts thro' the rocky barrier;
Down at once, its pine clad forests,
And towering glaciers fall, the work of ages
Crashing through all! extinction follows,
And the toil, the hope of man—o'erwhelms.”


J.M.W. Turner, poem pre­sen­ted with the paint­ing The Fall of an Ava­lanche in the Grisons, 1810

Turner never experienced an avalance, but he reproduced this natural event vividly. In 1808 he read an article about an avalanche disaster in Graubünden in which 25 people died in a hut. He also knew the avalanche paintings by Philipp James de Loutherbourg (1740–1812).

A comparison with Louther­bourg shows that Turner is more direct in every respect. While in Loutherbourg the horror is reflected in the faces of the fleeing people, Turner’s masses of snow are aimed directly at the viewer. Only the hut, destroyed by the boulders, speaks of man’s powerlessness in the face of the forces of nature. The momentum of the masses of snow is suggested solely by the white paint. Here for the first time the immediacy of Turner’s painting corresponds to the vehemence of the force of nature.

Philip James De Louther­bourg, An Ava­lanche in the Alps, 1803 Oil on canvas, 109.9 x 160 cm, © Tate, London, 2019

The sublime seizes, the beautiful enchants us …

Per Kirkeby, artist, 1984

Painter of the modern world

Painter of the modern world

Steam engines, electricity, newly discovered chemical elements: during Turner’s lifetime new in­sight and innovative technologies altered the world. This develop­ment is reflected in Turner’s paintings.

The industrial revolution began in England and changed the world as of the mid-18th century. Scientific discoveries and technological inventions go hand in hand. The experimental physicist Michael Faraday (1791–1867) tinkered with electricity and magnetism, Humphry Davy (1778–1829) discovered new elements and William Herschel (1738–1822) unknown planets. The Royal Society of Natural Science was in the same building as the Royal Academy of Arts.

Lectures on technology were extremely popular and were disseminated immediately in printed form. Ideas and discoveries were discussed in the salons. Turner only had to go from one room to another so as to satisfy his scientific curiosity. He debated with Faraday on pigment recipes and was a close friend of the astronomer and mathematician Mary Somerville (1780–1872).

J.M.W. Turner, The Hero of a Hundred Fights, c. 1800/10, reworked and exhibited 1847 Oil paint on canvas, 127.5 x 158.5 cm, © Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, © Photo: Tate, 2019

Gear wheels, cabbage heads and crockery—Turner painted a foundry as a dismal utility room around 1805. ln 1847 he overpainted the workshop, adding dazzling light and the bronze statue of the Duke of Wellington, just released from the casting mould. With this unconventional depiction, Turner literally showed hero worship in a new light. Between 1805 and 1847 colour schemes and modes of painting were clearly distinguished from one another. They elucidated Turner’s development from his early style, with its dismal shades, to his late oeuvre, in which brush movement adds dynamism to what is being depicted.

J.M.W. Turner, Steamer and Lightship; a study for ‘The Fighting Temeraire’, c. 1838/39 Oil paint on canvas, 91.4 x 119.7 cm, © Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, © Photo: Tate, 2019

The wrecks in Tur­ner’s paint­ings are al­ways sail­ing ships. In ‘Fight­ing Te­mer­aire’ Tur­ner links the past with the fu­ture. The glo­ri­ous old war­ship can no longer sail on its own; it is be­ing towed up the Ri­ver Thames by a small com­pact steam­ship to be bro­ken up. In the past, Great Brit­ain ruled the waves; now it was a lead­ing in­dus­trial na­tion.

Steamships and locomotives are symbols of the modern world. Their sign is the cloud of smoke in the sky and their sound the stomping of engines. Turner was fascinated by the steam-driven transportation systems. In his marine paintings, depictions of ships on the high seas, he celebrated the triumph of steam power.

J.M.W. Turner, The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up 1838, 1839 Oil on canvas, 91 × 122 cm, © National Gallery, London

Where­as the sea is rough in the draft, in the fi­nal paint­ing it forms a smooth, re­flect­ing sur­face on which the two con­trast­ing ships make their ap­pear­ance. The low sun bathes the last jour­ney of the for­mer battle­ship in a me­lan­cho­ly light.

Atmosphere is my style.

J.M.W. Turner

The essence of Turner’s paint­ing are the ef­fects of the dif­ferent light con­di­tions. Smoke, steam, mist, rain, foam — they all only come into their own through light, which veils the ob­jects to the ad­van­tage of an over­all at­mos­phere. Turner pre­sents the colours as light phe­no­mena and not features of things.

In the eye of the storm

Bad weather was very much to Turner’s liking. His paint­ings are in­fused with lashing rain, spray­ing foam and dark threaten­ing clouds.

Hawksworth always remembered one stormy day when, he said, 'Turner called to me loudly from the doorway, “Hawkey! Hawkey! Come here! Come here! Look at this thunderstorm. Isn’t it grand? Isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t it sublime?”

J. M. W. Turner
J.M.W. Turner, Rough Sea with wreckage, c. 1840/45 Oil paint on canvas, 107.4 x 138 cm, © Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, © Photo: Tate, 2019

There are no cloudless skies in Turner’s paintings. Sometimes these are just a few delicate fine weather clouds, sometimes threatening dark formations, but they always structure the sky and add an atmospheric charge to what is depicted. The lecture given by the first cloud researcher Luke Howard (1772–1864) at the Royal Society had an impact on Turner’s painting. As of 1802 Howard began to put forward his discoveries: there are basically four cloud formations, namely, cirrus, stratus, cumulus and nimbus. This new knowledge immediately found its way into painting. As early as 1815 these types of clouds were being mentioned in handbooks for artists. The clouds in Turner’s paintings can be named and they enable conclusions to be drawn about the weather at the time.

… the greatest difficulty to the painter: to produce wavy air, as some call the wind. To show that wind, one must give the cause as well as the effect, be it with mechanical strokes that have the strength of nature but are permanently shackled.

J.M.W. Turner, in his sketchbook, c. 1810

Air, smoke, clouds and water form a single blueish-grey mass in motion. In the visible rotating traces of the thrust of his paint application, Turner presents a parallel to the dynamism of nature. He depicts the cause and effect of the natural forces.

J.M.W. Turner, Snowstorm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth making Signals in Shallow Water, and going by the Lead. The Author was in this Storm on the Night the Ariel left Harwich, 1842 Oil paint on canvas, 91.4 × 121.9 cm, © Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, © Photo: Tate, 2019

With the subtitle 'The Author was in this Storm on the Night the Ariel left Harwich', Turner himself initiated the rumour that he had himself tied to the ship’s mast so as to experience the storm at first hand. However, no ship of that name is known.

Through the story, Turner emphasised the act of experiencing weather with all one’s senses. Like the painter, the viewers too should feel, and not just see the storm. By shifting the perception to the centre of attention, he staged the sublime aspect of the steamship struggling against the storm.

The Turner System

The Turner System

Turner challenged the visual habits of his contemporaries. As a provocative allrounder, he was as famous as he was notorious. In his pursuit of painting and his career he was uncompromising.

This gentleman has, on former occasions, chosen to paint with cream, or chocolate, yolk of egg, or currant jelly,—here he uses his whole array of kitchen stuff.

Critic of the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy, Athenaeum, 14-05-1842
Richard Doyle, J.M.W. Turner, 1846 Woodcut, 8.5 cm x 10.5 cm, York City Art Gallery, York

Repeatedly Turner’s unusual art drew criticism and ridicule. He rarely made use of foodstuffs in his work, but certainly of unconventional tools, working his oil paintings and watercolours with his fingernail or the handle of his paintbrush. He was also interested in new colour pigments. In his early works he used organic and mineral paints. He also used industrial products as soon as they appeared on the market. Cobalt blue appeared in his clouds around 1810, chromium yellow around 1815 and emerald green around 1830. Towards the end of his life, Turner also adopted the newly invented tube paints.

J.M.W. Turner, Shade and Darkness – the Evening of the Deluge, 1843 Oil paint on canvas, 104 x 104 cm, © Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, © Photo: Tate, 2019.

The Royal Academy

The rise of British art in Europe began with the foundation of the Royal Academy. Turner was indebted to that art academy throughout his whole life.

The Royal Academy was founded in 1768 by artists and architects and was based on the model of other art academies in Europe. Turner benefited from this new powerful representation of British art. His career was quite unique. He entered the Academy at the age of 14. One year later, he showed his first watercolour, and in 1796 at the age of 21 his first oil painting ‘Fishermen at Sea’ at the famous Annual Exhibition. The young painter’s intention was to continue the Dutch tradition of marine paintings that had been popular in Britain since the 17th century.

J.M.W. Turner, Fishermen at sea, 1796 Oil Paint on canvas, 112 x 142.5 cm, © Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, © Photo: Tate, 2019.

In 1799 he became an associate member of the Academy having reached the prescribed age of 24. In 1802 he became a full member and was appointed professor in 1807. He worked at the Academy for 35 years, as professor for perspective and for a time as temporary director. His strong Cockney accent and his chaotic style, however, made his classes rather unpopular.

William Parrott, Turner on Varnishing Day, c. 1846 Oil on wood, 45 x 43.7 cm, Collection Museums Sheffield on long-term loan from the Guild of St. George

Turner used every opportunity to present his paintings. Using the sketches he did in the summer, he then developed oil paintings and large watercolours in the winter. Over the course of the ‘varnishing days’, the paintings were completed by being given a transparent protective layer, the so-called varnish. This was a public occasion which Turner used to demonstrate his virtuosity. Sometimes he even altered his painting so as to outdo his rivals.

A brief history of the Vernissage

The word vernissage is derived from the ‘varnishing days’, or from the French word for varnish, ‘vernis’, leading to vernissage—a term used today for an exhibition opening. Originally the works were not quite complete at the vernissage. The varnish, as a protective layer, covered the whole painted area and sealed it; sometimes just some white highlights were placed on this.

One an­ec­dote of 1832 became famous: Tur­ner had entered a marine piece for the ex­hi­bi­tion. When he came to the Aca­de­my, his pa­inting was hang­ing be­side John Const­able’s ‘Open­ing of Wa­ter­loo Bridge’, with its strong lu­mi­nous shades of red. With­out fur­ther ado, Tur­ner took a brush and paint­ed a red dot in the waves in the fore­ground of his own paint­ing. The next day he trans­form­ed the red dot in­to a buoy.

Turner's show­room

A marked business sense plus clever self-promotion—Turner’s economic system was altogether modern.

George Jones, Interior of Turner's Gallery: The Artist Showing His Works, c. 1852 Oil on millboard, 14 x 23 cm, The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, presented by Mrs. George Jones, the artist's widow, 1881

I hate married men; they never make any sacrifice to the Arts, but are always thinking of their duty to their wives and families, or some rubbish of that sort.

J.M.W. Turner

In Britain during the emerging age of industrialisation, the wealthy bourgeois replaced the aristocrats as art collectors, which entailed the development of new merchandising channels. Turner received commissions from these new patrons of the arts and participated in the modern art exhibitions. As a 13-year-old he was already showing watercolours in his father’s barber shop, earning his first small amounts of money. In 1804 he set up his own gallery so as to be able to present his works to an interest clientele at any time.

Turner’s system is an early example of artistic self-promotion; his showroom was a precursor of the artist’s museum. In his later years, Turner painted sample studies. Together with his agent Thomas Griffith, he was thus able to praise and sell motifs before the paintings were even painted.

J.M.W. Turner, Dido Building Carthage, 1815 Oil on canvas, 155.5 x 230 cm, National Gallery, London, Public Domain, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

As Turner was well aware of the significance of his oeuvre, he began to hold back works. In 1825 he refused to sell the painting ‘Dido building Carthage’ of 1815 because it was counted among his masterpieces. The painting of his showroom reveals how that picture occupied a central position until his death. The presentation not only served to promote sales, but was also a show of his prowess. Turner used his last will and testament to consolidate his fame after death. He bequeathed about 300 oil paintings and 20,000 watercolours and drawings to the National Gallery, founded in 1824, on condition that a special gallery be built for them. According to his will, ‘Dido building Carthage’ was to be hung alongside the painting by Claude Lorrain whom he so admired.

The Birth of the Art Museum

In 1750 France opened the first painting gallery in the Palais du Luxembourg. The British Museum followed in 1759 and in 1779 the Fridericianum, Germany’s first museum. Prior to that, art was only on show to the public in churches and on public squares. As of the mid-18th-century, in the course of the Enlightenment rulers gradually made their collections accessible to the public. In 1793, at the time of the French Revolution, the Louvre was opened as the ‘central art museum of the Republic’. Napoleon had all the artworks looted throughout Europe presented in the Louvre so as to demonstrate France’s superiority. The artworks were elucidated by means of explanations, guided tours and cheap catalogues. Thus the art museum as we know it today was born.

Following on the momentous political upheavals, the Westfälische Kunstverein was established in 1831, and the Münster department of the Verein für Geschichte und Altertumskunde Westfalens in 1825 in order to rescue and preserve cultural goods. The inventories of both associations formed the basis of the collection at LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur, which opened in the middle of Westphalian town in 1908.

Turner: A pioneer of Modern Art?

Turner: A pioneer of Modern Art?

Many Impressionists of the late 19th century celebrated Turner as one of their forerunners.

At first glance, the watercolour seems to be a work of abstract art. The reddish-orange stripe between white and grey surfaces is reminiscent of a 1950s Rothko. But a closer look reveals sea monsters in the murky grey.

Turner usually had several works in progress at the same time. That is why his estate includes a multitude of unfinished paintings. With many of his watercolours, in fact, it is not always easy to tell a quick sketch from a careful study, or either of these from a completed work. Turner’s art cannot be called non-representational in the modern sense, although the artist did say: “Indistinctness is my forte.” His unfinished works have a modernistic look, which did have an effect on his posterity.

I ponder incessantly how I could paint without using dots. [...] The question is constantly on my mind. I should visit the Louvre to view the works of certain painters who are of interest in this respect. But surely it is useless if there are no Turners hanging there.

Camille Pissarro, in a letter to his son Lucien, 06/10/1888

Like Turner, the Impressionists wanted colours enhanced and no longer bound to objects. Their painting styles, however, are fundamentally different. Where Turner slurs colours together to represent volatility or speed, Impressionists keep colours separate from one another, to have them mingle only in the eye of the viewer.

J.M.W. Turner, The Thames above Waterloo Bridge, c.1830/05 Oil paint on canvas, 90.5 x 121 cm © Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, © Photo: Tate, 2019 Claude Monet, ‘Waterloo Bridge, overcast weather’, 1900 Oil on Canvas, framed: 87 x 122 x 8 cm 65 x 100 cm, Reg. No.304. Collection & image © Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin.

Notwithstanding his penchant for experimentation, Turner further developed the evocative rendering of wind, weather and light that had been established in the Netherlands since the 17th century. He considered himself an equal of the old masters whose works he studied, continuing their tradition. The Impressionists may have regarded him as a pioneer, but the question of whether and to what extent he was a modernist is still under discussion today among art historians.

J.M.W. Turner, Sun setting over a lake, c. 1840 Oil paint on canvas, 107.4 x 137.7 cm, © Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, © Photo: Tate, 2019

He had the idea to paint light itself, independent of that upon which it shines.

Théophile Thoré-Bürger