British, 1775–1851


Joseph Mallord William Turner, one of the most original and important of all European landscape and marine painters, was born and lived in London. The son of a Covent Garden barber, he was initially self-taught and learned through copying prints and drawings and assisting architectural draughtsmen. He attended the RA Schools, London, from 1789 and exhibited his first watercolour at the RA in 1790. He was soon commissioned to make watercolours for collectors and engravers and one connoisseur, Dr Thomas Monro, supported him by engaging him to copy works by J. R. Cozens and others. He began exhibiting oils at the RA in 1796, was elected ARA in 1799 and RA in 1802. Although he occasionally exhibited elsewhere (his own gallery 1804–12; the British Institution), his artistic life—and much of his emotional and social life—centered on the RA and its functions.

Turner derived artistic and intellectual stimulus from an exceptionally wide range of artists, both historical and contemporary, and enjoyed the challenge of competition. The painter who influenced him most profoundly was Claude Lorrain whose classical seaports and mythological landscapes made him weep with frustration in the 1790s and inspired compositions, themes, and light effects up to his final exhibits in 1850. He often acknowledged his debts openly in his titles which include references to artists as diverse as Raphael, Canaletto, Jan van Goyen, Watteau, and Rembrandt.

His early oils are characterized by dark, naturalistic colouring reminiscent of previous painters and his early watercolours similarly conformed to current norms of ‘tinted drawings’. From c. 1820 his work in both media was marked by a unique luminosity produced by the use of lighter grounds, a brighter palette, and an increasingly elaborate technique involving many separate touches and subtle gradations of tones. His ability to depict aerial phenomena and reflections has never been surpassed, but his revolutionary colours and tendency to dissolve forms in radiant vapour provoked accusations of eccentricity and madness.

Turner elevated English landscape painting from its inferior position below history painting and portraiture and gave it a new expressive role. After initially following topographical watercolour conventions and painting picturesque and sublime subjects in oils, he often used his works as vehicles of many-layered meanings or symbolic references derived from his extensive reading and poetical imagination and exhibited them with verses, sometimes from his own unpublished Fallacies of Hope. His lectures as professor of perspective at the RA (1807–37) stressed the importance of landscape as much as that of his official subject. He demonstrated both his own versatility and that of landscape itself in the didactic series of 70 prints published in 1807–19 as his Liber Studiorum (a title echoing that of Claude's Liber veritatis).

From 1791, summer sketching tours lasting several weeks were part of Turner's annual routine. The French wars of 1793–1815 confined his early tours to England, Wales, and Scotland, but the Peace of Amiens enabled him to visit Switzerland in 1802. He returned through Paris where he studied many paintings, including those recently looted from Italy by Napoleon. In 1817 Turner toured the Low Countries and the Rhineland and in 1819 he paid his first visit to Italy. The longest of all his tours, this lasted six months and took him to Venice, Rome, Naples, and Florence. He subjected countless European cities, villages, rivers, mountains, and lakes to intense scrutiny, filling over 300 sketchbooks with detailed records in pencil or watercolour. His sketches from nature provided him with the material for both real and imaginary scenes, some compositions taking years or even decades to mature. His favourite destinations in the 1830s and 1840s were Venice, the German rivers, and Switzerland, the infinitely complex effects of light on water and mountain scenery inspiring him to the last.

Turner was immensely prolific throughout his life, producing some 550 oil paintings and over 1,500 watercolours. His numerous patrons, some of whom became intimate friends, included aristocrats requiring pendants to old master paintings in their collections, country squires who fancied a depiction of their house and park, and industrialists in Manchester and Liverpool who needed oil paintings as symbols of their new wealth and status. A high proportion of Turner's watercolours were commissioned by printsellers or publishers for engraving, often in series. Most of the earlier series were large topographical scenes engraved on copper. During the 1830s he also supplied many exquisite illustrations as small-scale embellishments to literary works by contemporary or recent authors including Scott and Byron. Thanks to the invention of steel engraving, these reached a huge public and it was this type of work (for Samuel Rogers's Italy, 1830) which captivated the youthful Ruskin, inspiring him to champion the elderly painter against his critics.

A lifelong bachelor, Turner intended that his unsold finished paintings should belong to the British nation and his considerable fortune be used to build almshouses for needy artists. His philanthropic proposal was frustrated by the intervention of relatives disputing his will but, after many compromises, the so-called ‘Turner bequest’ of oils, watercolours, and sketchbooks is now housed in the Clore Gallery at the Tate (see under London).

Museum Collections:
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, Birmingham
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Frick Collection, New York, NY
J. Paul Getty Museum, San Francisco, CA
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
National Gallery, London
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh
Neue Pinakothek, Munich
Royal Academy of Arts Collection, London
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Tate Gallery, London

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Please contact us if you are interested in selling your Joseph Mallord William Turner paintings or other artwork from the 19th century and early 20th century. 

Paintings for sale


Joseph Mallord William Turner Paintings
Previously Sold

JOSEPH MALLORD WILLIAM TURNER  East Malling Abbey, Kent   Watercolor on paper 8½ x 10 inches (21.5 x 25.3 cm)  SOLD

East Malling Abbey, Kent

Watercolor on paper
8½ x 10 inches (21.5 x 25.3 cm)

JOSEPH MALLORD WILLIAM TURNER    Venice, Evening - Going to the Ball, San Martino  (1845)  Oil on canvas 24 x 36 inches (61 x 91.4 cm)  SOLD

Venice, Evening - Going to the Ball, San Martino (1845)
Oil on canvas
24 x 36 inches (61 x 91.4 cm)

JOSEPH MALLORD WILLIAM TURNER    Venice, Morning - Returning from the Ball, St. Martha  (1845)  Oil on canvas 24 x 36 inches (61 x 91.4 cm)  SOLD

Venice, Morning - Returning from the Ball, St. Martha (1845)
Oil on canvas
24 x 36 inches (61 x 91.4 cm)