J.M.W. Turner: Painting with Steam by Sharon Himes

English painter Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851)
painted romantic landscapes full of mystery and atmosphere. The landscape artist John Constable wrote of Turner; "He seems to paint with tinted steam, so evanescent and so airy". But Turner's work began in a more traditional, if romantic style.

Turner's talents were recognized early. He was a student at the Royal Academy schools in 1789 and exhibited there a year later when he was only 15. He studied landscape and painted many detailed and picturesque views in watercolor that were later profitably sold to engravers.

Turner was always fascinated by the sea, a subject he painted many times during his long life. Early oil paintings were detailed and elegant like 17th century Dutch paintings, but his work grew more romantic, with movement and powerful drama. He was inspired by history and literature and sometimes wrote poetry to accompany his paintings.

When the Napoleonic wars were over and European travel was again possible, Turner made regular trips to France, Italy and Switzerland to paint. He made small pencil drawings from which he later made paintings in the studio. On his first trip to Rome he made 1500 drawings and small watercolors in just three months. The color and atmosphere of Venice seemed to inspire him to explore light itself.

Beginning in his mid-fifties, Turner's paintings grew more abstract. He was more interested in the effects of color and light and less concerned about creating a recognizable picture. Many critics were not impressed, and one dismissed a snow storm painting as "soapsuds and whitewash".

Turner is considered a painter of the Romantic period because many of his works show the drama of nature. His paintings of storms at sea, fires, sunsets and other effects often involve a human element. The small smudge of a ship amid a powerful ocean or buildings seen through a screen of smoke, poetically allude to the courage and determination of humanity in the face of nature's fury.

The works of Turner were a strong inspiration to the Impressionists, who, a few years later began exploring nature through light and color. Turner's free brushwork and nearly abstract compositions opened the door for the next generation of painters to see the light.

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