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Art History: Joseph Mallord William Turner

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By Edited Aug 6, 2016 0 0

The Forerunner of the Impressionist Painters

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1775-1851, is considered by most art historians as the forerunner of the impressionist painters and the greatest of all landscape painters produced by England. However, it is his seascape paintings that have grabbed my attention the most. Turner's seascapes, historical events, weather anomalies, and his paintings of mythological stories are equal to the greatness of his landscape paintings. This article will analyze two of Turner's historical seascapes. These two paintings share many of the qualities of his landscape paintings; they were completed in the later years of Turner's life. These selections will show the real focus of Turner's work.

William Turner

His Early Work

Turner's earliest work was more detailed in regards to the incidental details within the scene he created on canvas. Paintings from his early years were more typical of the time, as in definitive lines and structure. His earliest work provided details and distinction between the primary subject(s) and ancillary items on the canvas. This compliance with the norm of the time is not unexpected since Turner was formally schooled in the arts since childhood, beginning as a child in his early teens at the Royal Academy schools. His earliest influence was friend Thomas Girtin. Yet, as he began to find his own place in the arts, Turner traveled throughout Britain, Wales, Yorkshire, and Scotland as well as the southern counties observing and learning (Gaunt, 231). Eventually, Turner developed a painting technique of his own.

"Instead of merely recording factually what he saw, Turner translated scenes into a light-filled expression of his own romantic feelings” (Gaunt, 231).

Impressionism over Realism

Being There

His focus was in creating the feeling of "being there," of creating the impression and sensation of experiencing the event. Turner's paintings were an expression of the emotions and sensations of the moment. Turner's fascination with the size, power, and vastness of nature was the real subject of much of his work. His focal point was to create the feeling and the impact of nature on man and events. "He was deeply aware of the terror of nature and mortality. He painted it, and the paint committed him” (Gowen, 53). Turner was particularly conscious of the sea and man's relationship to it. He spent many hours and days sitting alone to view the sea, weather, and man's interrelation to them both.

Poetic Vision

Authors like William Gaunt describe Turner's use of color as "creating poetic visions." His paintings have a common purpose to express, emulate, and capture the emotion of the moment as "he" saw and felt it or imagined it. These two paintings, The Fighting Temeraire and Snowstorm - Steamboat off a Harbor's Mouth, provide a platform for discussing similarities and differences in Turner's work, particularly his seascapes. Both paintings are oils and within the same time period of his life. Turner's paintings are a dynamic interplay of colors, shapes, lines, and values.

Story of JMW Turner


Fighting Temeraire

Viewing the painting Temeraire, after knowing its purpose as intended by Turner, presents a solemn and melancholy feeling of a heroic ship ending its last journey.

Temeraire by Turner


Draw a vertical line down the center of the painting and you'll see two separate stand-alone seascapes. The left side is that of the Temeraire being pulled to its last berth. The right side is that of the sun setting over a calm sea. The right half of this painting is a seascape of the setting sun. The sky is ablaze with hues from yellow to red. The setting sun sits a little above the horizon, a yellow circle generating a blaze of fire in the sky. The sea completely reflects the burning sky. The horizon's line is distinctive.


The sea is separated from the sun's subdued brightness by a band of blue, the last remnants of the day's sky. This blue band is the link that pulls the left half of the whole painting to the right side of the painting, just as the hues of yellow, orange, and red have found their way into the clouds above the ships. The hues creating the blueness in the sky blend into the clouds, and the clouds of white and grays are injected by slight hints of hues from yellow to red. This is done almost as if reflections of the Tug's fire stack or, more likely, Turner's extending the reflective hues of yellow, orange and red from the setting sun, into the right half of the painting.


The sky behind the Temeraire is one of blue with white and gray clouds. The water is calm except the slight white wash generated by the Temeraire being towed to its find berth. The lines of the ship are distinct enough to provide the ship's details. There is sufficient detail of the waterborne vessels to be sure of their identities and that of the event, for example:  the sails of the Temeriare's are lowered. The steam powered Tugboat's fire stack is spewing out a tall strong flame. The angle of the flame and the position of the Tug, indicate the direction of travel towards the right forefront side of the sunset. The water and sky reflect the massive ship's image and scale to nature.


The Fighting Temeraire is both imitative of an event Turner witnesses and symbolic of what the event represented to many sailors and Brits. Temeraire is a work of symbolism of emotion, respect of a ship and its crew. He used nature as a way of expressing these feelings and reflecting on historical events just as much as he showed nature's violence, power, and vastness. It's true for Turner, natures power was the only power he truly recognized. Even in his great paintings of man-made structures; nature, light, and space were more than present in his work - they were integral to his work. In the Temeraire, he recreates the shimmering calmness of the sea reflecting the images of both the ships and the setting sun, separate yet meeting together at the bottom center of the painting. The images are clear and indisputable. The intent is still to create the impression of being there, watching this final journey of the Fighting Temeraire. For those people of Turner's time, the story of this ship was well known. Therefore, by simply melding the imagery of a setting sun and the final journey of the Temeraire being tugged into the berth, was enough to set the emotional tone for those sailors and Brits that knew the ship’s story.

Snowstorm - Steamboat off a Harbor's Mouth

In Snowstorm, Turner creates the feeling of being there. The center point of the painting is the image of a Tugboat in a snowstorm on the sea.

Snowstorm by William Turner

Power of Nature

The Snowstorm is about the immensity of the event; the violence of nature’s power in churning the sea and the sky. Turner does not want the viewer to get lost in the details of the Tugboat, or the sea, or the sky. He desires to create through contrasting colors and values, the power of nature. He is, as always, trying to capture the feeling of being there; never intending this painting to be a precise record of a particular circumstance.

Use of Color

The color and intensity value is highest behind the ship, created by variances of white. No distinct line exists to clearly define the separation of sea and sky. He sparingly uses hues of blue, along with increasing the value created by the intensity of the white paint surrounding the mast of the ship, to create the hint of the sky's attempts to break through the storm. This increased value in the upper half of the painting is Turner's way of creating a division of the sky from the sea. Dark hues of black, brown, and green mixed and blended to create the ominous power of wind, snow, and the sea combined as one violent act of nature. The darkest point of the picture is the ship juxtaposed against a white background making the ships mast almost identifiable. There is no effort or intent to imitate specific details of the ship, sea, and sky. The effort is to emulate the awesome power of nature. Turner tries to capture the emotional moment of "being there."

The Tug's flag mast is visible, yet the smokestack is not. The spewing fumes of smoke and fire of the Tug's smokestack are visible, rising up and combining with the dark sky and only barely recognizable by hints of red and yellow. Snowstorm's hues and value changes create the sense of the cold and loneliness of a ship in a violent winter storm. Clouds are so thick and massive that they blot out the warmth of the sun and deny the reflection of the light off the surface of the churning sea. Turner was fascinated with the color yellow.

Artist's Paint Brushes Adapted With PhotoshopSi Griffiths


The Brush

The brush stroke texture is clearer than much of his other work, assisting the painter in creating a swirling of water and density of sky. So dense is the snow and moisture in the sky that it blocks out the sky's light and in turn looks as dark as the sea. By using the same dark colors in the sea and the sky, Turner creates the idea of one massive force of nature swirling around a ship that, itself, is lost in the mix of water and wind. The direction of his paint strokes and the twisting of hues create a counterclockwise swirling of nature's power with the ship as the center.

Compared and Contrasted

At a glance, these two paintings appear to have little or nothing in common and if not for this paper saying they were painted by the same artist. If you did not know better, these paintings could even be viewed as created by two different artists. It is best to keep in mind Turner's real intention for these paintings, worship and respect for nature, and man's history with the sea.

  1. Proportionally, the sea vessels portrayed in each painting share relatively the similar amount of subject space.
  2. The Temeraire sits left of the center of the canvas, while the Tugboat of the Snowstorm is right of center on the canvas. However, the clarity in detail of the Temeraire gives the impression that it occupies a more prominent position in its setting. Which is true, based on the message of the painting.
  3. The Tugboat of the Snowstorm has no clearly conclusive size because of its fusion within the events of the storm.
  4. In the Temeraire, there are two key points of reference: three ships clustered to the left of center and the bright sun light to the left of center.
  5. In the Snowstorm the focus point is the brightest point of white or light behind the main mast of the ship; this is the most distinctive identifiable trait that helps the mind’s eye identify the ship from the wind, snow and churning sea.
  6. The lines of the Temeraire are more definitive as demonstrated by the easily delineated three masts of the sailing ship. This is also true with the smaller single stack steam ship and the smaller sailing craft. 
  7. Snowstorm's lines are not distinctive, only hinted at by contrast of colors to distinguish the movement of wind, snow and clouds.
  8. There is little to no distinction between water and sky and no defined horizon. The sky and sea are almost one engulfing mass of nature.
  9. The Temeriare's shapes are well-defined as compared to the ship in Snowstorm. Even ships seen far in the distance in Temeraire are readily identified. The clearly visible three-mast ship in the far distance is seen with sails up indicating sufficient winds for sailing.
  10. The shape of the Tug in Snowstorm is lost in the turmoil of nature's violence. Only through the mast being connected to the darkest point of the picture, is the vessel somewhat recognized.
  11. In contrasting value between the Temeraire and Snowstorm, Turner uses lighter hues to maintain a clear division of sky and sea. Further, in Temeraire, the sky in the left half and the right half of the painting is separated by complimentary colors with hints of gray in between.
  12. As stated earlier, drawing a line down the center of this painting creates two individual paintings. The left picture is of the Temeraire being pulled to its final berth and its last day. The right side, a setting sun, is darker in value and signifies the end of the day.
  13. The Snowstorm uses contrasts of light to dark. The dark portions of the sky create the intensity of the wind, snow and sea. The sky and sea becoming almost one massive element of nature furiously attack the ship.
  14. So intense is the event and the merging of events, that even the ships separate identity begins to be lost in the dramatic scene.


Power of Yellow

As in almost all of Turner's midlife and later paintings, watercolors and oils alike, the color yellow is worked into the painting. Both of the paintings discussed in this paper contain hues of yellow.

Temeraire by Turner

In the Temeraire the yellow hue adds the intensity of the sunset.  The yellow hue introduced in the sky and sea of Snowstorm does not create or add to a sense of sun shine, but heat from the fires of the engine boilers. It is contrasted against the cold and froth of the sea and snow joined in nature's stormy violence. Notice in the recreation of the sky over the Temeraire. The clouds on the right side of this painting are more realistic, have some shape, and are easily recognizable. The clouds over the sea on the right side of this painting have less definable shape, overshadowed by the sun's fire and reflective power.

Snowstorm by William Turner
The clouds in Snowstorm have no defined shape; instead, they are fused into the mix of the sky's colors. The darker hues in the Snowstorm's sky give the impression that they are result of low-level clouds. Clouds sitting low and thick over the ship denying the sun's rays to pass.

This infatuation with hues of yellow was most notable beginning with his paintings of the burning of Parliament in 1834. The use of yellow hues is prominent in his paintings; such as, HMS Minotaur (1793), Rain, Steam and Speed - The Great Western Railway, Chichester Canal, Wreckers Coast of Northumberland, Ovid, Modern Rome-Campo Vaccino, and many others.

Final Words

J. M. W. Turner was an extraordinary artist ahead of his time. He maintained his focus in creating the feeling of, as Turner himself put it, "being there." These two historically seascapes are examples of his ability to create the impression, emotion, and sensation of the event. Turner wanted to not just duplicate what is seen, but what is felt. It's interesting to read some of the criticism of Turner's work during his life. There were those that felt his works were "blots of color" without purpose; and yet Turner became famous and extremely successful within his own lifetime. As written by Wilton, "He knew what he had to offer; and respected his colleagues the more for identifying it themselves” (Wilton, 182). 

J. M. W. Turner: Painting Set Free
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Turner: His life and works in 500 images
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  1. William Gaunt The Great Century of British Painting: Hogarth to Turner. London: Phaidon Publishers, 1971.
  2. Lawrence Gowing Turner: Imagination and Reality. New York: Doubleday and Company Inc., 1966.
  3. Stella Pandell Russel Art in the World, Fourth Edition . Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1993.
  4. Andrew Wilton Turner: In His Time. New York: Times Mirror Books, 1987.

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