J.M.W. Turner, Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory)

J.M.W. Turner, Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – The Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis, Exhibited 1843, Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851, Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856. Photography © Tate, London 2015

J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free

October 31, 2015 - January 31, 2016


Luminosity, colour, energy . . . genius. - The Globe and Mail

One of the most radical and influential artists of the 19th century, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), was a giant of British art who produced many of his most important and famous pictures after the age of sixty, in the last fifteen years of his life.

Featuring more than 50 paintings and works on paper on loan from Tate Britain, J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free is the first major exhibition to focus on the final and most experimental phase of the artist’s career. Beginning in 1835 and closing with his last exhibitions at the Royal Academy in 1850, the exhibition explores how Turner’s later years were a time of exceptional energy and vigour.

Premiered at Tate Britain in September 2014 and heralded by critics across the U.K. as “an exciting, entrancing show” (The Guardian) and “sensational” (London Evening Standard), J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free reveals a painter whose breadth of knowledge and romantic imagination was matched only by his innovative spirit.

Turner’s late works, with their emphasis on atmosphere, are famous for their rich colour, textures and evocative use of light. Challenging the myths, assumptions and interpretations that have grown around Turner’s later work, this exhibition sets out to show how his final years were a time of exceptional drive and vigour, during which he continued travelling, confronting and painting the dramatic landscapes of Europe. The installation at the AGO will be coordinated by Lloyd DeWitt, AGO Curator of European Art.

Organized thematically, the exhibition takes a focused look at his travels across Europe, his fascination with classical history, mythology and religion, his love of the sea and his pre-occupations with capturing light and atmosphere.

For all the latest details on J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free, follow #TurnerAGO on Twitter and Instagram.

Organised by Tate Britain in association with the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the J. Paul Getty Museum

Lead supporter

Generously supported by

Supported by the Government of Canada / Avec l'appui du gouvernement du Canada

Government Partner

Media Partner


Turner was short and stout, and he had a sturdy, sailor – like walk. There was in fact nothing elegant in his appearance… – C. R. Leslie, friend of Turner

J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851)

Joseph Mallord William Turner is widely regarded as Britain’s most original artist and perhaps the greatest watercolourist of all time. A likeable eccentric, he had an insatiable curiosity, a powerful imagination, and boundless energy and ambition. In the last 15 years of his career – the focus of this exhibition – Turner continued to search for innovative ways to paint landscapes, experimenting with new techniques, colours, formats and even subjects. “An astonishing magician” is how one contemporary described him. Inspired by travels abroad and encounters with nature – mountains, the sea, extreme weather – Turner injected a newfound emotional power into landscape. He truly set 19th-century painting free.

Turner’s father was a wigmaker in central London. He lived with his son and the two were very close, perhaps as a result of the mental instability and institutionalization of Mary Marshall, the artist’s mother. William Turner performed the duties of an artist’s assistant, grinding pigments and preparing and varnishing canvases. J.M. W. Turner was motivated by the knowledge that his work gave his father pleasure and pride. He was never the same after his father’s death.

Although Turner never married, he wasn’t without companionship. In 1799, he begins an affair with Sarah Danby, the mother of his two daughters. And in 1833, Turner met Sophia Booth, a financially independent widow, when he stayed at her boarding house in a picturesque port on the Thames River. Turner was inspired by the view of sky, water and boats from her property, and his time there proved highly productive. Together for the rest of his life, Sophia Booth and Turner kept their relationship a secret for 18 years. No known portrait of Booth survives.

The man was uncouth, but with a wonderful range of mind. – John Constable

Turner was both a financially and critically successful painter in his own lifetime. An avid fisherman and heavy drinker, reputedly consuming eight pints of rum and milk every day, Turner’s health declined after 1845, making it impossible for him to travel abroad. Various illnesses slowed his productivity, but he continued to socialize in artistic circles. In 1846, Turner relocated to a cottage on the Chelsea riverfront that he shared with his companion, Sophia Booth. Turner died on December 19, 1851, and was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Turner left an estate valued at £140,000 – an enormous sum equivalent to 10 million dollars in today’s currency – with instructions to establish a charity for poor artists. Members of his family contested his will, however, and this wish was never realized. In the final settlement, the British nation received the entire contents of the artist’s studio, including 100 finished oils, 182 unfinished oils and oil sketches, 300 sketchbooks and 30,000 drawings and watercolours. They are now housed at Tate Britain in London. The AGO has 4 watercolours and a selection of prints by Turner in its permanent collection.

[Turner was] the finest creator of mystery in the whole of art. – Claude Debussy


The only secret I have got is damned hard work – J.M.W Turner

This exhibition looks at Turner’s mature years. But where did it all begin? The artist’s youthful watercolours show features that were typical of art from this period: muted tones, delicate brush strokes, attention to detail, picturesque subjects and gentle, rolling landscape compositions. In subsequent decades, Turner experimented relentlessly, pushing himself to invent novel forms of expression. His later works are vividly coloured and painted, with bold motifs and innovative designs.

Turner, Lake Nemi @ 660

Fire at the Grand Storehouse of the Tower of London

Turner’s most radical achievements were in watercolour. Over his lifetime, he invented a host of new techniques that elevated a basic sketching medium into high art, and he approached watercolour with an unprecedented spontaneity that artists still seek to emulate. Turner laid new colours (brighter blues, deeper greens, radiant yellows) directly onto water-soaked paper, revelling in the element of chance. He was also known to blot his works with breadcrumbs, scratch their surfaces with a thumbnail sharpened “like an eagle claw” and layer them with transparent veils of wash. In all, Turner produced a staggering 1,800 watercolours. With their high finish and large scale, they could rival oil paintings as complete works of art.

Turner refused to be restricted by conventional artistic practices and instead followed his imagination, developing many innovative approaches to oil painting. A friend observed that he had “no systematic process,” but constantly varied his tactics until he reached a solution that expressed “in some degree the idea in his mind.” Turner experimented endlessly with paint application, using brushes, palette knives and even his fingers. He also tested unorthodox combinations of watercolour and oil as well as new products, which were not always beneficial to his work. One collector saw a maid sweeping up lost bits of paint off the floor as canvases cracked and flaked in response to Turner’s ceaseless trials. The artist’s works required restoration even during his lifetime.

Turner on Varnishing Days

J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) at the Royal Academy, Varnishing Day

“Varnishing days” were the short period of time set aside before exhibitions for artists to put final touches on their paintings. Turner was a keen supporter of the practice, and often revelled in the competitive jostling and repartee that occurred. In his later years, he would frequently submit canvases with only the roughest indications of colour and form, then speedily complete them on site. According to one eyewitness, Turner came “with the carpenters at six in the morning, and worked standing all day.” Another onlooker recounted, “He used rather short brushes, a very messy palette, and, standing very close up to the canvas, appeared to paint with his eyes and nose as well as his hand.” Turner’s artist friends responded to these virtuoso painting performances with admiration and awe.


Turner’s insatiable appetite for history and dramatic scenery drew him time and again to continental Europe. He travelled light and usually alone, often walking many miles. He made few concessions to his age or failing health. While travelling, Turner drew constantly in his sketchbooks, leading his colleagues to remark on his diligence. One artist, idling with a cigar in a gondola in Venice one evening, said he felt ashamed to see Turner “hard at work.” Another watched him sketching “continuously and rapidly” in a tiny book while aboard a steamship on Lake Constance near the Alps. Turner was attracted not only to spectacular sites like ancient ruins, medieval castles, jagged mountain peaks and meandering rivers, but also to local customs, culture and atmospheric effects of weather and light.

The Blue Rigi, Sunrise

The Blue Rigi, Sunrise

In his 60s, Turner rediscovered with a fresh perspective places he had marvelled at in his youth: the Alps and Switzerland. He also visited northern Europe, and was particularly drawn to the Rhine, Meuse and Mosel rivers. His experiences, recorded in many thousands of sketches and colour studies, fuelled some of his greatest work in oil and watercolour.

Turner first depicted the Rigi, a mountain on Lake Lucerne, on an early trip to Switzerland in 1802. In his later years, the artist returned to the subject again and again. Here the looming, powerful form of the Rigi is silhouetted against an array of skies, from sunrise to sunset. Turner’s study of changing atmospheric effects on the same motif inspired French impressionists like Claude Monet.

The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella from the Steps of the Europa

The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of the Europa

Although Turner visited Venice only three times, his many colour studies and paintings of the city are among his most potent works. Although sometimes criticized for their intense colours and questionable accuracy, Turner’s Venetian pictures sold better than many of his other late works, and were much admired by later artists such as Claude Monet.

Situated near the mouth of the Grand Canal in Venice, the Hotel Europa provided Turner with a good location for sketching the city’s rooftops as well as views like this, looking across to the Dogana (Customs House) and beyond, to a gleaming, ethereal city shrouded in fog. This painting may symbolize the trading power of Venice in its prime: the pots in the foreground are an example of imported luxury goods.


Turner’s landscape paintings featured much more than nature. To engage his viewers, the artist incorporated historical subjects into his work. Turner believed that the past offered lessons for the present: contemporary life could best be understood from a historical perspective. His themes ranged from classical and European history and mythology to biblical tales and Shakespeare.

Turner also explored contemporary subjects, including the modern state of Italy, the legacy of the Napoleonic wars, the whaling industry, and the occurrence of spectacular fires, such as the one that ravaged the Tower of London. Turner was also the first major European artist to address the most significant new technology of the era: steam power.

Curiously, Turner’s first and last history paintings featured episodes from the life of Aeneas, the hero who fled Troy carrying his father on his back, then wandered the Mediterranean in search of a home. The artist related personally to this tale of family devotion and constant travel. Like Aeneas, Turner sought comfort in the arms of widows: Sarah Danby and Sophia Booth. Unlike the Trojan hero, the artist kept his relationships secret.

Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus

Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus

In the pictures he made later in his career, Turner often contrasted past and present, sometimes focusing on paired subjects in order to explore the grand sweep of time and the instability of existence. This painting of ancient imperial Rome was intended to hang beside a view of the modern Christian city. Here, the widow Agrippina returns to Rome with the ashes of her husband, Germanicus. A celebrated military hero and a nephew of Emperor Tiberius, Germanicus was a victim of rivalries in the imperial family.

Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – The Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis

Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory)

In this depiction of the aftermath of the Biblical flood, Turner tests Goethe’s theory that colour arises from the interaction of light and shade. The “Moses” referred to in the title is probably not only the biblical figure but also Moses Harris, the author of a treatise on colour. Turner’s spinning vortex-like compositions convey the eternal rotation of night and day, light and dark, and also the cyclical nature of life.


Turner’s lifelong fascination with the sea intensified in his final years. He transformed traditional seascapes into what appear as theatrical sets for human action and dramatic effect. When Turner looked at the sea, he thought of immensity, mortality, futility, beauty and power.

The artist astounded viewers with his bold portrayals of modern maritime life – for example, whales and their hunters battling for survival. He also strove to capture nature’s elemental, destructive forces. After a terrible storm at sea, Turner recounted: “I got the sailors to lash me to the mast to observe it; I was lashed for four hours, and I did not expect to escape, but I felt bound to record it if I did.”

Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth

Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth

Snow Storm is one of Turner’s most celebrated works. Here, the artist fuses his unmatched powers of observation with radical new thoughts about composition and paint application. The work pits the latest human technological achievement – steam power – against the uncontrollable forces of nature. It is a terrifying battle, played out amid a swirling vortex of wild seas and winds. According to legend, Turner observed the tumult firsthand: at sea in stormy weather, he asked sailors to tie him to the ship’s mast.


Throughout his career, Turner made no secret of his love of light. According to legend, his last words on his deathbed were “The sun is God.” For Turner, light produced colour, sculpted form, created mood and revealed the infinite beauties and horrors of nature. Capturing it in both watercolour and oil was a lifelong challenge for the artist. To bring intensity to his oil paintings, Turner pioneered the use of white undercoating, which lent new brilliance to his colours.

Turner was likewise drawn to infinite variations in weather. “Atmosphere,” he once commented, “is my style. Indistinctness is my forte.” Never before had the public confronted such memorable views “of nothing.” As his rival John Constable commented, “He seems to paint with tinted steam, so evanescent and so airy.”



Marcus Atilius Regulus was a Roman consul captured by the Carthaginians during the First Punic War. He was tortured and killed after ignoring orders to negotiate a return of enemy prisoners. His eyelids were cut off, leaving him blinded by the sun. Turner first showed this picture in Rome in 1828. He repainted it in London in 1837, allegedly adding dazzling rays of sunlight in the days before the exhibition opened.

Fire at the Grand Storehouse of the Tower of London

Fire at the Grand Storehouse of the Tower of London

On October 30, 1841, a spectacular fire gutted the Grand Storehouse at the Tower of London. It burned for several days, destroying the collection of historic arms housed there. Turner’s request for direct admission to the fortress was refused by the Duke of Wellington, but he could have joined the huge crowds watching beyond the moat. This rapid study was one of nine that Turner probably made back at his studio.


Be the first to find out about AGO exhibitions and events, get the behind-the-scenes scoop and book tickets before it’s too late.
You can unsubscribe at any time.