Joseph M. W. Turner’s skies – Marie Laurent

Joseph M. W. Turner’s skies

Joseph Mallord William Turner, also known as William Turner or J. M. W. Turner was a major artist of the 18th and 19th centuries in the United Kingdom. He greatly influenced both the classicist and romantic movements, while contributing with his own signature elements. One of those was his skies; his technique and use of painting methods as well as the significance he gave the skies in his art pieces marked the world of art and are still relevant today. How did he influence his contemporaries and his time ? The answer lies in between the clouds of his paintings.

            Born in 1775 in London, he died on December the 19th in 1851. His family situation was far from ideal. Indeed, his father, a wig-maker and a barber, and his mother, who was mentally unstable, do not keep their son for long and at the age of ten he is sent to live with his uncle. This decision may have been taken with regards to his mother’s unfit mental state, as a few years later, in 1799, she is admitted into a mental asylum. What pushed this admission was most likely the death of William’s younger sister Helen in 1786. All in all, his artistic inclinations were increased by this change of life, as he expressed his first interest in arts, drawings created one after the other. Living on the banks of the River Thames inspired him to recreate his natural surroundings, trying to depict them trough his drawings. He later pursued his interests in arts when he entered the Royal Academy of Ar School in 1789, where his paintings were already considered of interest. Indeed one of his paintings was chosen for the 1790 exhibition at the Academy. He then went on to become one of the most well-known painter of his time, thought his oil-based and watercolours’ paintings, especially in the landscape ‘division’. He travelled around Europe for years, taking inspiration and techniques from many countries and artists and applied them to his home country of England. If one wishes to see the landscapes of the 18th and 19th centuries in England, the first recommendation given by anyone would be to look for William Turner’s paintings, an accurate and relevant piece of advice. Nowadays, most of his works are in the Tate Britain Museum in London.

If his work had to be categorized, three main subjects could be distinguished: people, boats and landscapes. The linking element of those subjects is always present, in any place around the world, day or night: the sky. Indeed, most of his paintings featured, in the background or foreground, as subject or as secondary element, the skies. For he was described by art critic John Ruskin as ‘the’ artist who could most “stirringly and truthfully measure the moods of Nature”. And what else but the sky can be understood by “the moods of Nature”? From cloudless skies to stormy and dark nights, the sky represents Nature at its wildest, most telling feature. In the Ancient times the sky was even an indicator of Gods’ mood, their feelings expressed through rain and sunshine.  From as far as humans can look back, the sky has been the source of many questions, of many beliefs. From Stonehenge to the Egyptian pyramids, skies have been house to diverse deities, stars and even monsters.. Turner’s original interest in landscapes developed into an overall interest in Nature as a whole, its changes and its meanings, which is why he often incorporated natural elements in most of his pieces. Turner himself said “I did not paint… to be understood. I wished to show what such a scene was like”.

As previously stated, the skies in William Turner’s painting could have two distinct roles, that of the subject itself or that of the ‘supporting role’, as to say complementing the actual subject of the painting. One of his most famous paintings can be associated with the latter statement, the sky as a complement to the subject. The Fighting Téméraire, created in 1838-39 is now exhibited at the National Gallery in London.

The ‘Fighting Temeraire’ tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up, 1838-39,Joseph Mallord William Turner, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London.

This painting is both related to art- of course-, and history. Indeed, it depicts a crucial era, that of the industrial revolution of Great Britain. Having played a major role in the 1805’s Battle of Trafalgar, this ship represents the old nation, the old culture. To see that old boat being dragged by a revolutionary tugboat, the old world led to its end by the contemporary present is an explicit metaphor. The play on light is also important, the new boat blackened, almost overshadowed by the immense Téméraire, the latter pure and precious in white and gold. However, as often, Turner makes the sky a major feature in this historical painting. Indeed, the two boats, leading roles of the scene, are not  exactly in the middle, not highlighted by the vanishing point. In fact, neither the boats or the sky are, as if to give equal importance to the two actors.


Lifeboat and Manby Apparatus going off to a stranded vessel making signal blue lights of distress, exhibited 1831, Joseph Mallord William Turner, Oil on canvas, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The sky is the source of light within the painting, its sun reflecting on the water. Focussing on the red giant, it is depicted on the right of the picture, in the East meaning the sun is rising. This choice is not uneventful; « It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life »[1]. In other words, dawn almost always represents a new beginning, a change, which it obviously does in Turner’s painting. It is the beginning of a new era, a new England. More than its symbolic meaning, this sky is, while in the background, given more importance than the two boats in the foreground, at least in my mind. The reasoning behind this statement comes from the paint pigments used by the painter: all the colours are muted, browns and off-whites, mostly dimmed colours, except for the bright    yellows and blues used for the sun and sky. Turner indeed made the sky the primary source of light in his painting. While it is most likely in an realism effort, it also highlights the overall importance of skies in his art. While Turner was recognized in his days, he was not exempt from criticism. His contemporary Sir George Beaumont described his paintings as « blots ». This can somehow be applied to this painting, as the clouds obscuring the waking sun seem more dense, almost layered on the canvas. This ‘empâtement’ however seems to me more of an asset than a fault, as it gives more texture, more focus on this area. This interest for historical events was depicted in a few of his paintings throughout his life, especially the transition from the ‘ancient, old’ world to the industrial one. Indeed, in Rain, Steam and Speed The Great Western Railway, he represents one of the first locomotive of said railway crossing the Thames River on Maidenhead Railway Bridge. Once again, the vanishing point does not occur on the train itself, but rather on the Sun. In this painting in particular the role of the sky is shadowing that of the original subject of the painting. The railway seems to be emerging from the fog of the sky in the background. This can be analysed as the sky giving birth to the train, or rather to the road itself. Without going too deep into symbolism, it is not far-fetched to explain that choice as the depiction of Nature as the mother of everything, including ‘human-made’ creations. One does not need to agree with this explanation, but the importance given to the sky in the painting in itself is unarguable. Turner’s skies were present in not only historical representation of his times, but also older representations such as in Mount Vesuvius (1817), Dido Building Carthage, or The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire (exhibited in 1815) or Stonehenge (1827).

Rain, Steam and Speed The Great Western Railway, 1844, Joseph Mallord William Turner, Oil on canvas, National Gallery

If one thing strikes in William Turner’s paintings, it is his realistic representation of nature. He indeed created very realistic paintings of landscapes and his surroundings in general. One of the reason he succeeded so well at it was his choice of pigments. In his times, new pigments were discovered but against the general advice for more long-lasting pigments, he kept using more ephemeral ones like carmine. The effect was a rapid fading of his colours, but what mattered to him was the striking hues they provided when first applied; in other words, the moment was more important for him than the future preservation of his paintings. The importance of the moment was a leading trait of his creations, as he created from visual memory of real places, he captured the exact moment he wanted in order to keep his vision as realistic as possible. This quest for realism made him the master of landscape paintings, as many other only used visual references as inspiration rather than trying to recreate nature itself. That decision in itself can be applied to the place he gave skies in his carrier, as the skies change at Nature’s will, only obeying its rules, not caring for people’s wants. As a man, William Turner was rather secluded, keeping close to few people, including his father with whom he lived for thirty years. Painting nature and landscapes was in keeping with his personality, however he did not resent people, sometimes depicting them in his art.

The following painting demonstrates what was just explained, Turner’s landscapes sometimes included people. However, while it represented those persons, the attention was still directed towards Nature, in particular the sky. The two characters on the bottom right of the painting are dwarfed by the elements, both the sky and the ocean. Turner’s blending of oil paints is shown under a very flattering light, as the sea and the sky are undistinguishable, the viewer can not draw the limit between the two. The colours are lighter in the foreground and get darker and denser in the background, as if the sea was absorbing the light created by the sky.

Scarborough, 1925, Joseph Mallord William Turner


Stangate Creek on the River Medway, 1822-24, Joseph Mallord William Turner


Later in his life, Turner became willingly less precise, in the sense that he favoured more vague outlines in order to focus the eye on colours rather than forms. This is particularly present and relevant in his way of depicting the sky. The following quotation explains his technique and how it affected his art: « His distinctive style of painting, in which he used watercolour technique with oil paints, created lightness, fluency, and ephemeral atmospheric effects. In his later years he used oils ever more transparently, and turned to an evocation of almost pure light by use of shimmering colour »[2]. As is explained here, his two favourite media were watercolour and oil paint, and the genius of his art lays in his blending of both: using watercolours techniques with oils. This created luminescent highlights, colourful landscapes as well as phantasmagoric effect. Concerning the latter, the skies were a major part of the effect, as they often dominated the painting, expressing emotions such as anger, sadness or joy and peace, all the while bringing light to the overall image. It gives the impression of a never-ending painting, as if beyond the borders of the canvas the skies continue.

Stangate Creek on the River Medway, one of his watercolour pieces shows how he could project light even through the more faded colours of watercolour paints. Indeed, the morning sun reflecting on the river seems to glow out of the painting. Moreover, even the clouds, whose outlines are not clearly visible, are lightly reflected on the surface of the water. Here the colours are quite clearly preferred over clear outlines, favouring colours over form.  This can be found in many of his works, as in Scarborough (1825), a watercolour and graphite piece, in which Turner once again mixes different medium to enhance his colours and landscapes. In this work, while the ‘human’ elements like the boat and the characters are clearly outlined, Turner chose to blur the background, especially the mountain and the sky. This gives a mystical feel to the painting, the light serving a double purpose: highlighting the hill and creating the reflection of the clouds on the bank. Turner gave a very peculiar importance to light, as he said: « Light is therefor colour » and was often called the ‘painter of light’.

            The sky has been seen as a dream, a nightmare, heaven and hell, a gentle light and a violent storm; William Turner painted it in every one of its forms, through different media, oils, graphite and watercolours, in landscapes paintings and behind everyday scenes. The multiplicity of Turner’s subjects only adds to his complete representation of the skies. Travelling around Europe allowed the painter to see the sky’s many faces, many moods. Through it, he depicted man, nature and history.

To link such a productive artist through the sky allows a rather free interpretation of his universe, which can hardly be summarized in so few words. His fascination with Nature and the sky in particular followed him his whole life, he is even said to have muttered « Sun is God » before passing away. Maybe his purpose all along was to get closer to that God, closer to the Sun which is why he tried so hard to understand the sky. Untouched by mankind and victim to its own moods, the Sky is forever free, an unreachable goal even for such a man as William Turner.


Marie Laurent

M1 Anglais



[1] Nina Simone, ‘Feeling good’, I Put a Spell On You, 1965.


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