The 10 Most Famous Artworks of JMW Turner
This includes Fishermen at Sea, The Shipwreck, Frosty Morning, and Hannibal Crossing the Alps...
Joseph Mallord William Turner (23 April 1775 – 19 December 1851), known in his time as William Turner, was an English Romantic painter, printmaker and watercolourist. He is known for his expressive colourisations, imaginative landscapes and turbulent, often violent marine paintings. He left behind more than 550 oil paintings, 2,000 watercolours, and 30,000 works on paper.
Turner’s imagination was sparked by shipwrecks, fires (including the burning of Parliament in 1834, an event which Turner witnessed first-hand, and transcribed in a series of watercolour sketches), and natural phenomena such as sunlight, storm, rain, and fog. He was fascinated by the violent power of the sea, as seen in Dawn after the Wreck (1840) and The Slave Ship (1840).
niood lists the 10 Most Famous Artworks of JMW Turner:
The first oil painting Turner exhibited at the Royal Academy, this is a moonlit scene in the tradition of Horace Vernet, Philip de Loutherbourg and Joseph Wright of Derby. These painters were largely responsible for fuelling the 18th-century vogue for nocturnal subjects. The sense of the overwhelming power of nature is a key theme of the Sublime. The potency of the moonlight contrasts with the delicate vulnerability of the flickering lantern, emphasising nature’s power over mankind and the fishermen’s fate in particular. The jagged silhouettes on the left are the treacherous rocks called ‘the Needles’ off the Isle of Wight.
Turner had a lifelong passion for the sea. Shipwrecks and other disasters were a popular theme when Turner painted this. They demonstrated the powerful forces of the elements and the fears of those who travelled far from home. We don’t know whether this painting was inspired by an actual shipwreck. Turner demonstrates the trauma and horror of a shipwreck with dramatic realism. These dark colours are common in Turner’s early paintings. They provide a contrast to the white crests of the waves.
Genre: History painting
This austere winter landscape was one of the most personal of Turner’s exhibited pictures. It records a scene he witnessed while travelling in Yorkshire, and is said to include his eldest daughter, Evelina (in blue), and his ‘crop-eared bay’ horse (pulling the cart). Turner was particularly fond of this painting, which he preferred not to sell. It was also admired by contemporary and later critics. The Spectator saw in it ‘the true tone of nature imitated to perfection’. Years after Turner’s death, Claude Monet saw it and declared it had been painted with ‘wide-open eyes’.
Genre: History painting
The painting depicts the struggle of Hannibal’s soldiers to cross the Maritime Alps in 218 BC, opposed by the forces of nature and local tribes. A curving black storm cloud dominates the sky, poised to descend on the soldiers in the valley below, with an orange-yellow Sun attempting to break through the clouds. A white avalanche cascades down the mountain to the right. Hannibal himself is not clearly depicted, but may be riding the elephant just visible in the distance. The large animal is dwarfed by the storm and the landscape, with the sunlit plains of Italy opening up beyond.
Turner saw parallels between Hannibal and Napoleon, and between the historic Punic War between Rome and Carthage and the contemporary Napoleonic Wars between Britain and France. The painting is Turner’s response to Jacques-Louis David‘s portrait of Napoleon Crossing the Alps, of Napoleon leading his army over the Great St Bernard Pass in May 1800, which Turner had seen during a visit to Paris in 1802. Turner set his painting in the Val d’Aosta, one of the possible routes that Hannibal may have used to cross the Alps, which Turner had also visited in 1802.
Locations: The National Gallery (since 1856), National Portrait Gallery
The subject is a classical landscape taken from Virgil’s Aeneid. The figure in blue and white on the left is Dido, directing the builders of the new city of Carthage. The figure in front of her, wearing armour and facing away from the viewer, may be her Trojan lover Aeneas. Some children are playing with a flimsy toy boat in the water, symbolising the growing but fragile naval power of Carthage, while the tomb of her dead husband Sychaeus, on the right side of the painting, on the other bank of the estuary, foreshadows the eventual doom of Carthage.
Location: Tate Britain, London
Norham sits on the river Tweed in Northumberland, on the English side of the border with Scotland. Turner first saw Norham castle in 1797, during his first tour of northern Britain. He returned to the ruins in 1801 and 1831, creating work after each visit. Turner made this unfinished canvas late in his career. He uses colour to express the blazing light that merges the building and the landscape. It is one of a group of paintings Turner based on compositions from his ‘Liber Studiorum’ (‘Book of Studies’) (1807–19). This was Turner’s set of 70 engravings he had made from his watercolour compositions.
Location: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
One of Turner’s most celebrated works, “Slave Ship” is a striking example of the artist’s fascination with violence, both human and elemental. He based the painting on an 18th-century poem that described a slave ship caught in a typhoon and on the true story of the Zong, a British ship whose captain, in 1781, had thrown overboard sick and dying enslaved people so that he could collect insurance money only available for those “lost at sea.” Turner captures the horror of the event and the terrifying grandeur of nature through hot, churning color and light that merge sea and sky. The critic John Ruskin, the first owner of “Slave Ship,” wrote, “If I were reduced to rest Turner’s immortality upon any single work, I should choose this.”
Location: Tate Modern, London, UK
Peace shows the burial at sea of Turner’s friend, the artist David Wilkie. The cool palette and saturated blacks create a striking contrast to its pair, War, hung alongside, and convey the calm of Wilkie’s dignified death, compared to Napoleon’s disgrace. The two titles War and Peace are illustrated as abstract concepts, via tone and colour, rather than as actual events. Both works were roundly criticised at the time for their lack of finishing.
Turner grew from a young art student trained in executing topographical watercolours to the creator of some of the most original landscapes of his time. On his second visit to Venice, probably in September 1833, he created a series of views of the city that betray on the one hand an ardent interest in recording what he saw and, on the other, a Romantic sensibility that suffused his pictures with a sense of the grandeur of nature and of its magnificent light and colour. This picture is based in part on a pencil drawing made during Turner’s first trip to Venice in August 1819 and combines two viewpoints along the Grand Canal. It was shown with four other works in May 1835 at the Royal Academy, where it was well received as one of his “most agreeable works.”
Location: The National Gallery
Subject: HMS Temeraire
The painting depicts the 98-gun HMS Temeraire, one of the last second-rate ships of the line to have played a role in the Battle of Trafalgar, being towed up the Thames by a paddle-wheel steam tug in 1838, towards its final berth in Rotherhithe to be broken up for scrap.
He used considerable licence in the painting, which had a symbolic meaning that his first audience immediately appreciated. Turner was twenty-eight years old when Britain entered the Napoleonic Wars and “had a strong patriotic streak.” The Temeraire was a well-known ship from her heroic performance at Trafalgar, and her sale by the Admiralty had attracted substantial press coverage, which was probably what brought the subject to his attention.