At the heart of symbolism

The painter of light


Self-portrait at 24 (Detail)

The vision of a luminous world

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), son of a barber of London, was a watercolourist, landscape painter and engraver. The remarkable evolution of his work, throughout a hard working life, brought him the title of “painter of light”. Turner became a precursor of Impressionism and modern art.

After the death of his young sister, in 1785, which painfully affected his mother, William was sent to a maternal uncle in Brentford, a small town on the banks of the Thames, west of London. The place let hatch his taste for drawing. Three years later, he joined a school located on the Thames estuary. His father exhibited his first drawings in his shop window.

Saint Erasmus in bishop Islip's chapel, 1796Several architects noticed his drawings which showed his great control of perspective and they employed him. He continued his training with a famous topographic draughtsman, Thomas Malton, before being taken for a trial by the Royal Academy at the age of 14 only. He followed courses in perspective and topography.

In 1790, the Royal Academy presented one of his watercolours in its annual exhibition, the equivalent of the Parisian Salons for the English. The following year, two of his paintings were exhibited. Many other works took over during the sixty years of his artistic life.

At 18, he received the “Greater Silver Pallette”, a prize rewarding his landscape drawings. In 1796, he could present his first canvas beside his watercolours.

The painting is inspired by the light-dark of the 17th century Dutch painting. The scene shows two boats swept along by the bustling waters by a full moon night. The spectator can only be struck by the startling contrast between the quietness of the luminous world represented in the higher half of the painting and the torments of the marine, obscure world depicted in its lower half. Do the oblique prolongations of the two closest masts not meet in the middle of the lower edge of the painting ? Do they not evoke the marine depths from which no one returns ? This travel without hope 1 of return towards light could depict the state of mind of Turner at that time.

During summer times, the artist stayed in various regions of Great Britain, in particular in Wales and Scotland. Each time, he came back with drawings intended to illustrate travel accounts. He met people from the industrial and banking world who requested his talents to represent buildings. He notably became acquainted with earl Egremont who invited him to his house at Petworth where he stayed many times and, probably, knew the happiest moments of his existence. His celebrity grew across the Channel, especially after the illustrations of the works of Walter Scott, Lord Byron and Samuel Rogers.

William Turner did not limit himself to the reproduction of nature; he also studied master pieces of landscape painters. He was elected associate of the Academy in 1799 and full member in 1802. Five years later, he was appointed professor of perspective.

In 1799, he discovered the Angerstein's collection and Claude Lorrain's painting (17th century). It revealed other ways to render light for him. Turner painted several canvasses in the style of the Master.

In the previous painting, the moon glare was only the pale reflection of the direct sunlight. In this painting, the rays of the noon sunlight flood the sky, stroke the columns and skim the surface of water. Night and darkness have given way to full daylight.

This moment of culmination of the sun in the sky naturally follows its rising and precedes its setting that the artist did not omit to paint.

The treaty of Amiens put an end, in 1802, to the hostilities between England and France. Turner could, on several occasions, go to the continent (as English people used to say). He crossed France, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Italy. He discovered in these countries an ignored nature and works of many artists. The painter was particularly interested in the rendering of light-dark and colour. He notably stayed in Venice where he found a new source of inspiration.

This watercolour is mainly made of blue and yellow stripes to which a third colour, red, is added. The red spots evoke the sunrise. The various browns of the lower stripe result from different mixings of the three previous primary colours.

The voluntary limitation in the representation of shapes echoes that of the use of colours. Just as colours are the manifestation of the white colour which contains all of them in an undifferentiated state, shapes are the manifestation of the Principle which contains all of them in a unified state. The limitation of shapes accompanies the limitation of colours to suggest the manifestation of a single stage of development.

Indeed, the birth of the day symbolizes the manifestation of the Principle in its process of differentiation of colours and shapes. Colours and shapes will gradually become broader before leading to the world we perceive. Turner depicts here a world which is still taking shape. The painting hardly appears outlined, for it still represents a world in an unfinished stage. It is about a fugitive moment of the development process, on the way to achievement.

The year 1819 marked William Turner's first trip to Venice and a turning point in the evolution of his work. He gradually left the pictorial way of the representation of realism for that of the atmosphere of a fugitive vision. Little by little, Turner abandoned the line perspective to embrace the colour one, a long time before Paul Cézanne.

From 1820, Turner carried out many studies of the setting sun.

In this study, it seems that the sun radiations in red, yellow and greenish colours are coming from the application of a preliminary layer to suggest the presence of water. The dark colour of the clouds must have been applied afterwards in order to let the alliances of the background colours to come out. The obscure atmosphere is the prelude to the absorption of colours by the darkness of the night. Night symbolizes a return to the source, the Principle at the origin of everything and preceding a new manifestation at the dawn of a new day.

Until 1835, William Turner continued to paint canvasses in the style of recognized Masters while carrying out studies revealing an increasingly inner and meditative approach. The hiatus was more and more difficult to endure and as retirement age approached, he decided to stop teaching in 1837. His works were often criticized, but he found an eloquent defender in the person of John Ruskin (1819-1900) who was an artist, poet and art critic. Ruskin published a series of books in order to make the Turner's work more accessible. Turner continued travelling across the Channel until 1845 before staying in England for health reasons.

Turner discovered the theory of colours of Goethe in 1843. One of his painter friends translated the “Treaty of colours” and offered it to the artist. The book of Goethe was very useful to understand the last years of Turner's work. However, he had found the practical methods to harmonize colours long before reading Goethe's work. The principles at the base of the colour theory of the poet and the intuitive visions of the artist followed different ways before rejoining.

Having become the oldest member of the Royal Academy after having been the youngest, he nevertheless took part in the 1850 exhibition. He died a very rich person in 1851 and bequeathed an enormous pictorial treasure to the nation.

A general remark before going deeper into some of his outstanding works and measuring all the progress made. It would be very hazardous to stick to reproductions in books or on the internet to get an idea of the rendering of the artist's work. Even the paintings exhibited at the Tate or National Gallery do not always do William Turner justice. Some tones became more matt and darker with time, in particular his favourite colours, blue (colour of the Sky) and yellow (colour of the Earth).

1 back William Turner painted around 1845-50, i.e. by the end of his life, a watercolour entitled “The loss of any hope”. It represents a sinking or a ship running aground. It appears that this seclusion in the obscure world had never completely left him despite the illuminations that transported him towards light as testified by so many works.

Detailed page