Reckoned by many to be the greatest British painter who ever lived, Turner's art is complex and contradictory. On the one hand he was a great landscape painter and a Romantic, highly praised by John Ruskin and linked to a movement associated with the countryside and anti-industrialism. On the other, he was a great painter of steam ships and railways, far better than Futurist artists at representing the power and speed of steam locomotives. Whilst a personal and expressive painter, whose move towards abstraction was a great influence on Impressionism, he was also a skilled painter of public subjects, particularly those involving the British Royal Navy.
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 - 1851) was a student at the Royal Academy in London in 1789, and exhibited there aged only 15. His early paintings were mainly of landscapes, detailed and realistic, owing much to seventeenth century Dutch art, particularly Willem van de Velde, whome Turner said "made me a painter". In the early nineteenth century he travelled widely in Europe, visiting France, Italy and Switzerland. He made many notable watercolours, oil paintings and sketches there, such as his studies in sublimity of St Gothard's Pass and The Great Fall of Riechenback in Switzerland. These paintings of the Swiss Alps combine geological accuracy with a sense of the landscape's great size and immensity; travels such as these in Switzerland also had a comparable effect on William Wordsworth, particularly recounted in The Prelude.
His subjects include not only scenes of the countryside; he was particularly fond of the sea and ships. He painted military scenes such as the Battle of Trafalgar and the Battle of Waterloo, but also scenes such as the horror of The Slave Ship (men and horses are thrown overboard in a storm) and the sad The Fighting Temeraire, which depicts a sailing ship being pulled by steam tugs to the breakers' yard. In contrast, The Battle of Trafalgar, a royal commission, depicts Admiral Nelson's flagship in great detail, showing its broken mast and Nelson's famous "England expects every man to do his duty" message in flags; Turner returned to retouch the rigging after criticism from naval experts. On land, Rain, Steam, Speed depicts a locomotive of the Great Western Railway as a small shape surrounded by white smoke and blurred golden landscape.
Many of his greatest works consist in pushing representational art as far as it can go away from realism. Works such as the sunrise in Norham Castle, Rain, Steam, Speed, and his watercolours of the burning of the Houses of Parliament in 1834 are more about masses of colour and light than they are accurate depictions of actual scenes and events. His work is frequently about evoking feelings of the sublime, of the world's grandeur and man's insignificance, through its depictions of mountains, the ocean, steam and fire; rather than the smaller-scale emotional affect (melancholy, grief, joy) of the Impressionists and Post-impressionists. His place in history rests ultimately not on his influence or even his originality, but on the power and beauty of his own work.