The creation of J.M.W. Turner

Brush strokes, personal growth

Creation, self-actualization—for the Englishman and Romantic-era painter J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851), these two tasks were one. Turner practiced a mode of expression true to his inner nature and purified by choice, and through his practice refined a style capable of realizing his singular perspective. More than the technical mastery of his medium, it is this commitment to himself and to his vision that makes Turner the ideal artist and a timeless model of self-development.

He recognized that between ourselves and honest living and expression stands a field of obstacles; art, as it is for many, served as compass and consolation while he navigated through. With each work in which he committed to himself, Turner practiced his honesty, rid himself of a fear, lie, envy, or nagging criticism, and enriched his knowledge of the forms and flows of his internal and the external world.

The result was a gradual purification. His field of obstacles thinned, and those that remained he embraced, either because he chose them, or because they were inherent to his craft. Always he needed to lay the right brush stroke, to mix pigments on a palette, to sketch despite a biting wind; but these challenges he loved, and he met them as one meets the few friends kept close at the end of a life long with noise. He opened himself to them, enjoyed their influence on him, stayed true to them, and thereby became and stayed true to himself. Turner’s development is this commitment, the repeated choice to pursue his own perspective and choose his own challenges.

Fishermen at Sea exhibited 1796 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Fishermen at Sea (1796, above) exemplifies Turner at an early stage along this journey. Already he has chiseled his talent into skill, identified the elements of English national myth, and equipped himself with the technical and storytelling lessons of his predecessors. In Fishermen he deploys this education with precision: the sea swells into white ridges lucid and crisp, the moon’s focused radiance casts the sailors as protagonists, and save for the sharply framed, orange lantern glowing aboard the central ship, Turner grounds his palette in the solemn emerald of midnight brine. Looking over the scene we shiver in the fishermen’s cold, dread the darkness into which the rightward boat fades, pray their flickering civilization lasts the night. Into this sympathy Turner delivers his simple yet stirring narrative: although home calls, duty remains; port, warmth, and safety must wait.

Fishermen’s emotional accessibility and technical grace earned Turner more than high praise. Three years later at age 24 he was admitted to Britain’s leading cultural institution, the Royal Academy of the Arts. With membership’s accompanying connections and funding, Turner traveled extensively and brought himself into conversation with a diversity of landscapes, cultures, and ideas. But despite the privileges he now had, he avoided the elitist air that often intoxicated his contemporaries and influenced their creative output. As a result, he could keep what he liked in Fishermen and move—stylistically and inwardly—further on.

Sunset in the Rockies exhibited c.1866 Albert Bierstadt 1830-1902

To demonstrate, let’s compare Turner’s Sun Setting Over a Lake (1840, below) with Albert Bierstadt’s Sunset in the Rockies (1866, above). Bierstadt, also a painter of landscape influenced by Romanticism, delivers a style reminiscent of Turner’s in Fishermen. He replicates the natural relationship between light’s source and its reflectors, his brushwork appears deliberate, and the scene glimmers with detail. Bierstadt may dramatize the warm glow of the canyon, but we can still step into it, skip an rock across the sunlit river, pick from a bush or tree a single leaf. With this realism Bierstadt, like Turner, mythologizes: Sunset in the Rockies preaches the glory of the American West in an accessible visual language, one which serves to ingrain or reinforce in its viewers the notion of America as beautiful, the Beautiful. It’s a language we naturally understand, whose precision we can admire, a language that perhaps convinces us to donate to the Sierra Club or rent a cabin in Colorado.

Sun Setting over a Lake c.1840 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Sun Setting over a Lake, however, urges a more intuitive interpretation. Turner has seen the embers behind the cold science of sight, and he reaches around the images born to our cameras and corneas to rip the smolder of fading daylight to the fore. Rather than inspecting Sun Setting or accepting the blurb from a tour guide, Turner asks us to stand before his fire until thought dims and feeling ignites, until the passing of time becomes visceral.

This revelation realism struggles to deliver. Conscious of its limitations, Turner chooses a less accurate, more honest mode. He balances his knowledge with his senses, wades through the noise of thought, brings that which was truest in him to the truth always latent in nature, and then deploys his medium to articulate it. The process is relational, an exchange: the scene flows from the external, meets Turner’s spirit in sincere conversation, and flows back out as an molten alloy of movement and light. The visual language realized, however imprecise, feels rawer, reaches deeper, and enables him to express his purest feelings in dialogue with the universe.

Painting this way Turner achieved originality, the reason his work broadened and enlightened Life. Perhaps we receive light less intensely than he did, miss the misty energies of the atmosphere; but because he painted, we can. Turner’s art enables us to see his insights, to wander in his worlds; it provides a space for our creativities to mingle with his and together imagine and build new roads in our minds. This is why we say great figures in history “pave the way.” Their achievements make possible the settling of a yet further stretch of experience, invent language for the indescribable, hang the lantern higher on our cave wall.

And when we name these figures leaders or heroes, we touch a strand of truth. Turner and every such individual, in their commitments to personal perspective and the discipline of their crafts, essentially win a victory for freedom: they articulate new ways of thinking and living, and new ways of thinking and living must be articulated before they can be thought or led. As if squeezing a key between B and C on the piano their original creations add notes to the manifold of existence, thereby creating greater freedom for us all.

Maybe, though, you feel indifferent to Turner’s perspective, unempowered by his originality, and unmoved by his art. That’s fine: there are other Turners. Instead of him, find your own, someone whose story of singularity reaches you, reveals better for you the meaning of development.

Or perhaps, correctly, you point to Mr. Turner’s privileges, to the lack of friction between his potential and its actualization, and say this lack renders him irrelevant to those who face injustices he never had to consider, who are persecuted for being, let alone becoming themselves. His superlative example of development nevertheless stands. It is in harmony with the task of removing these injustices, and it illuminates its ultimate goal: the undertaking of the challenges that remain after the unjust challenges are gone.

Because at its easiest becoming oneself still requires the responsibility of choice—in theory, in action, and in habit. Turner accepted this responsibility and tailored it to his talents and curiosities. He practiced the discipline to master his craft, engaged sincerely with all he sincerely wanted to engage in, and dropped (as much as he could) all the rest. He chose honesty over praise and singularity over conformity. At his core, he chose to choose.