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J.M.W. Turner

Joseph Mallord William Turner, born in Covent Garden, London on April 23 (exact date disputed) 1775, died December 19, 1851. English Romantic landscape artist.


The Grand Canal, Venice
Painted 1835
Larger version

His father William was a wig maker who later became a barber. His mother, Mary Marshall, a housewife, became increasingly mentally unstable during his early years, perhaps in part due to the early death of Turner's younger sister in 1786. She died in 1804, having been committed to a mental asylum.

Possibly due to the load placed on the family by these problems, the young Turner was sent in 1785 to stay with his uncle on his mother's side in Brentford, which was then a small town west of London on the banks of the Thames. It was here that he first expressed an interest in painting. A year later he went to school in Margate in Kent to the east of London in the area of the Thames estuary. At this time he had been creating many paintings, which his father exhibited in his shop window.

He went to the Royal Academy of Art when he was only fifteen years old. Sir Joshua Reynolds, the president of the academy at that time, chaired the panel that admitted him. A watercolor of his was accepted for the Summer Exhibition[?] of 1790 after only one year's study. He exhibited his first oil painting in 1796. Throughout the rest of his life, he regularly exhibited at the academy.

He is commonly known as "the painter of light". Although renowned for his oils, Turner is also regarded as one of the founders of English watercolor landscape painting.

One of his most famous oil paintings is The Fighting "Temeraire" Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken Up, painted in 1839, which hangs in the National Gallery, London. See also The Golden Bough.

Turner travelled widely in Europe, starting with France and Switzerland in 1802 and studying in the Louvre in Paris in the same year. He also made many visits to Venice during his lifetime.

He never married, although he had a mistress, Sarah Danby, by whom he had two daughters.

As he grew older, Turner became more eccentric. He had few close friends, except for his father, who lived with him for thirty years, eventually working as his studio assistant. His father died in 1829, which had a profound effect on him, and thereafter he was subject to bouts of depression.

He died in his house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea[?] on December 19 1851. At his request he was buried in St Paul's Cathedral, where he lies next to Sir Joshua Reynolds. His last exhibition at the Royal Academy was in 1850.

Turner left a large fortune that he hoped would be used to support what he called "decaying artists." His collection of paintings was bequeathed to the British nation, and he intended that a special gallery would be built to house them. This did not come to pass owing to a dispute by his descendants over the legality of his will. Twenty years after his death, the paintings were given over to the British Museum.



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