The forces of nature, unknown territories, a pinch of melancholy and the infinite imagination of the human spirit: these words might just sum up the essence of Romanticism, an important movement in the field of art (but also literature and music) that originated in Europe at the end of the 18th century. William Turner, the artist of this week, is a well-known romantic painter as he contributed a great deal to this specific art movement. Some of his works could even be considered predecessors of Impressionism, but you will read more about that later onwards. First of all; who was William Turner, also known as “The Painter of Light”?
The life of William Turner in a nutshell
Joseph Mallord William Turner (J. M. W. Turner), was born on April 23rd, 1775 in London, England (Covent Garden to be exact!). Because of his poor health, Turner was sent to live with his uncle in the countryside of England from a young age. During this period in his life, Turner started painting and simultaneously his artistic career. Fascinated with landscapes, Turner was influenced by romantic painting and worked with luminous imagery in his works. Whilst his artworks were initially realistic and detailed, his later works show a more poetic and fluid style. During his life, Turner was quite a succesful painter. He died on December 19th, in 1851 in his birthplace, London, England.
The romanticism movement
Romanticism was an artistic, literary, musical and intellectual movement which had its peak between 1800 and 1850. Emotions and individualism, as well as the forces of nature and glorification of the past, were key issues in the romanticism movement. Part of the romanticism movement can be explained as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution; during this Age of Enlightenment and the scientific rationalisation of nature, quite a few people longed to escape all these developments of population increase, urban development and industrialism.
Intense emotion as the foundation of aesthetic experience was emphasised: experiencing nature and the documentation of this particular experience played an important role for romanticist painters. Next to the power of nature, emotions like awe, horror and spontaneity and the notion of individualism were also recurrent themes in the many artworks that belong to the romanticism movement.
Romanticism was ultimately rooted in Sturm und Drang, a German movement which emphasised intuition and emotions above the rational way of thinking during the Enlightenment. However, the French Revolution and its ideology was also an important contributor. In the late 19th century, Realism was created as a counter movement to Romanticism.
Turner’s artistic development and innovations
Turner has been known as one of the founders of watercolour landscape painting. As the man was a passionate traveller and moved around Europe, he acted as an 18th century photojournalist. He made countless watercolours of many different landscapes, monuments and sites, particularly in France, Switzerland, Italy and Germany. There were found over 20,000 (!!) works of his after his death.
At the beginning of his career, William had been an avid admirer of the so-called “old masters” like Claude Gelée and Nicolas Poussin, both historical landscape painters. Detailed and colourful works which played on feelings of discovery and the forces of nature link back to this traditional style of landscape painting. His initial works reflected his training as a topographic draftsman and resulted in realistic depictions of landscapes. By creating scenes of luminous imagery he eventually became known as the “Painter of Light”.
As his life and career progressed, however, his style evolved into a more daring one, which some call a pre-impressionist approach of painting. Details of painted subjects were dissolved into coloured atmospheres, playing on the spectator’s emotions and abilities of imagination…