JMW Turner–The beginnings of Modernism

My primary interest in investigating the life and work of JMW Turner is to establish that he was just as much a true outsider artist as any artist we affix that label to at present. This would go for artists like Piero de Cosimo, Bosch, Goya and Brueghel and any other large number of artists. My definition of Outsider Artist is not the common one. When I use the term it’s to refer to any artist working so far outside the strictures of his contemporary community that his late work has next to nothing in common with the way in which other artists of the time make art. The great revolutionary painters of the late 19th century, Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh, and Chaim Soutine among many others also qualify. In Claude Monet’s late paintings he was making outsider art. The Water Lillies were so radical in conception at the time that they were never seen outside his studio. Much like Goya’s Disasters of War

The following information is drawn from “Seeing Through Paintings” by Andrea Kirsh and Rustin S. Levenson.

On pages 240-241 in reference to Turner’s use of varnish:

In the case of Turner, we have anecdotal accounts that he added paint and glazes to work already hanging on the Royal Academy’s walls, but as Joyce Townsend writes, “the exhibited paintings which he sold would likely have been given a final coat of varnish at least a year after purchase, the minimum time considered sufficient for a painting to dry in the English climate, by nineteenth century writers at that time. At that time, the owner would have specified the varnish type, or asked another artist, or perhaps Turner himself, to apply varnish of his choice.

Does removing varnish entail the risk of removing the artist’s finishing touches? The simple answer is yes. But this answer must be qualified historically—if the artist worked with paints or varnishes above the varnish layer, those materials would have been vulnerable the first time varnish was removed.”

For some more basic technical information, I’m turning to Hereward Lester Cooke’s excellent “Painting Techniques of the Masters” from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.:

Even when he painted in oils, Turner used a technique similar to that of watercolor.

Turner often painted from pencil sketches which he made in his travels many years before. In some cases these sketches consisted of only a few lines; he supplied the rest from his imagination and memory. :

1. He prepared the canvas with a pure white lead base, leaving some of the brush strokes visible, but covering the canvas fairly completely so that only a slight texture of the weave was visible.

2. He brushed a very thin turpentine wash—probably only of golden ochre—over the whole surface of the canvas, which was lying flat to prevent much running and spreading.

3. Using a sable brush and again mostly turpentine as a medium, he drew in the main lines of the composition, probably with burnt sienna. The principal masses of light, such as the dome of the distant church, were blocked in with lead white, probably mixed with some wax and a thin oil turpentine medium. (my note. Townshend reports the use of beeswax or sperm whale wax for impasto).

The paint was applied in thick layers giving the surface an almost bas-relief sculptural effect. This effect was used particularly in those sections where the direct brilliant light was desired, in the cupolas, for example.

4. He placed the local color areas, again using only transparent colors and a glazing medium.

5. In the final step, Turner applied small accents of impasto—usually white —which are scattered over the lagoon like pearls.
It is difficult to believe that Turner could have painted a canvas like this unless the canvas were lying flat. Evidently he kept the surface swimming in medium, but there are no signs of runbacks, or spreading.

This last paragraph is fascinating. It brings to mind Ensor’s large Entry of Christ, also at the Getty, which was painted flat, so large that Ensor had a special harness built so he could be suspended over top of it. It’s also reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s late methods or the large late Picasso’s.

The notion of the surface swimming in medium is striking. I’m not making any general case that Old Masters weren’t interested in longevity. But I believe it clearly applies to Turner (as we’ll see) and I’m restricting all my observations solely to him and not reasoning out to the practice of any other painters.

JMW Turner, The Dogana and Santa Maria della Salute Venice, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1843

About trueoutsider

I'm an artist.
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