JOSEPH MALLORD WILLIAM TURNER: the most famous English painter of the 18th century

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Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) is undoubtedly the best known English painter of the 18th century. Many exhibitions are still devoted to him today. He is known as one of the main painters of the aesthetic of the sublime and for his great talent, especially in watercolour. Although the line is forced, he is also considered the precursor of impressionism and even of abstract art.

Turner's first trip to Switzerland

Turner came from a modest background: his father was a barber. He was spotted at a very young age: he entered the Royal Academy of Painting at 14, a very early age. Turner discovered the mountains during a trip to Wales in 1798. This new environment led him to seek new techniques and a new style, adapted to this environment which he was visiting for the first time. The discovery of the Alps in 1802 gave Turner the opportunity to continue his stylistic explorations. It was probably Walter Ramsden Hawkesworth Fawkes, a landowner and political reformer, who encouraged Turner to visit Switzerland. Fawkes bought twenty watercolours and two oil paintings from Turner following this trip. Turner knew Switzerland through the watercolours of his compatriot John Robert Cozens, which he had copied in the 1790s for Hugh Andrew Johnstone Munro de Novar, an aristocrat, art collector and one of Turner's first patrons.

His 1802 trip is emblematic of the destinations that were crystallizing at that time: Grande Chartreuse, Geneva, Savoy and Mont Blanc, Bonhomme and Seigne passes, Courmayeur and Aosta, Grand Saint Bernard, lower Valais, canton of Vaud with Lake Geneva, Bern andOberland, Lake Lucerne, return to the Gotthard.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Sea of Ice, in the Valley of Chamonix, 1803, watercolour, 70.5 x 104.1 cm, Yale Center for British Art.
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Sea of Ice, in the Valley of Chamonix, 1803, watercolour, 70.5 x 104.1 cm, Yale Center for British Art.

Turner's travels in Switzerland

did not offer material for a theme that Turner loved: that of the grandeur, decadence and fall of empires. In 1836 he was travelling with Munro, who reports that the painter did not use colour in his studies until he was in Switzerland, suggesting that Turner was saving his pigments for Switzerland, presumably the purpose of the trip.

Turner travelled again to Switzerland in 1841, 1842, 1843 and 1844. He did not keep a diary and so his trips to Switzerland have been reconstructed from his drawings and watercolours. His interest in the Alps did not wane over time and led him to explore several different places within the limits of accessibility at the time. He crossed the St Gotthard Pass several times, visited Grindelwald twice, as well as the Grisons and the region of Chamonix. The Alpine region that interested him most and which he visited on every trip was Lucerne and its surroundings, Lake Lucerne. Apart from Martigny and Sion, he did not visit the Valais and never went to Zermatt, even though tourism began to develop there in the late 1830s and early 1840s.

Turner processes

Turner made many watercolour studies on the spot in notebooks, which he called memoranda. These are often very quick studies, consisting of only a few pencil strokes. Turner did not apply watercolours on the spot but in the evening at the hotel. He did not do this every day, however, which explains why many studies have the same colours. Although Turner painted in both oil and watercolour - a medium much appreciated by the English - he favoured the latter in Switzerland. Avalanche in Graubünden is one of the few works with a Swiss subject that is painted in oil. The theme of catastrophe, on the other hand, is frequently found in Turner's work, including in Switzerland. Goldau, which deals with the landslide in Goldau in 1806, is another example.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Avalanche in the Grisons, exhibited 1810, oil on canvas, 90.2 x 120 cm, London, Tate Britain.
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Avalanche in the Grisons, exhibited 1810, oil on canvas, 90.2 x 120 cm, London, Tate Britain.

Sublime

Turner is a painter of the aesthetic of the sublime. The sublime is characterised by a feeling of "delicious horror": it is the awe caused by something immeasurable that escapes man, who finds himself in safety and enjoys this awe somewhere. Switzerland and its mountains offer an ideal environment to translate this feeling: man is sent back to his smallness. Let us take the example of the Devil's Bridge in the Schöllenen gorge near Andermatt. Turner does not leave any foreground where the viewer can virtually land and exaggerates the topography of the site - already reputed to be one of the wildest and most arid at the time -, an exaggeration that is particularly visible in the height of the bridge and the rock faces.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Devil's Bridge, c. 1841, watercolour, 23.8 x 30.5 cm, Cambridge, The Fitzwilliam Museum.
Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Devil's Bridge, c. 1841, watercolour, 23.8 x 30.5 cm, Cambridge, The Fitzwilliam Museum.

Hannibal crossing the Alps

Turner is also a painter of history, as with Hannibal crossing the Alps, depicting the famous crossing of the Alps by the Carthaginian general and his army on their march to Rome. A storm is raging, a tribe from the Alps is attacking the rear of the army, Hannibal himself is not visible: the promise of the plains of Italy seems far away. Even the sun seems weak. This painting, highlighting man's vulnerability in the face of nature, is charged with a moral message in this period of Napoleonic wars (the painting dates from 1810): Turner takes the opposite view to David and his Bonaparte crossing the Great St Bernard, where the emperor is represented as triumphant.  

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Snowstorm - Hannibal crossing the Alps, 1810, oil on canvas, 146 x 237.5 cm, London, Tate Britain.
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Snowstorm - Hannibal crossing the Alps, 1810, oil on canvas, 146 x 237.5 cm, London, Tate Britain.

Change of style and new watercolours in the 1840s

After his 1841 trip to Switzerland and the Alps, Turner brought back in his bags watercolours of a new kind, very different from the watercolours with continental subjects: they are no longer studies intended for sale as on previous trips, but watercolours halfway between simple memoranda and finished works. These studies are slightly larger than A4 size. Turner exhibited them in his private gallery in London, where he had his regular customers come. From these sheets, they could choose the final watercolour, which Turner would then paint. The success was less than expected: it is likely that the buyers were disturbed by Turner's attempts to render the monumental character of the landscape through the air, a novelty difficult to understand at the time. Thus, as in 1802, Switzerland once again led Turner to evolve his style and practice in painting the characteristic landscapes of that country.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Lake Zug, 1841, watercolour, 29.8 x 46.6 cm, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Lake Zug, 1841, watercolour, 29.8 x 46.6 cm, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Lucerne and the Rigi

Turner came to Switzerland every year between 1841 and 1844. He stayed regularly in Lucerne and always rented the same hotel room, overlooking the lake and the Rigi. Turner was fascinated by the mountain and produced numerous studies and watercolours of it, at different times of the day and under different light effects. An unfinished oil painting in the Tate Britain in London probably depicts the sunset from summit . The watercolours of Lake Lucerne and the Rigi are among Turner's finest works.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Lake Lucerne at Light with the Rigi, 1841, watercolour, gouache and scrapings on paper, 23 x 31 cm, The Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester.
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Lake Lucerne at Light with the Rigi, 1841, watercolour, gouache and scrapings on paper, 23 x 31 cm, The Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester.

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