The Persona of Mr. Turner

J.M.W. Turner, Self-Portrait, c. 1798, oil, 28 3/4 x 22 3/4, Tate Gallery

I have been teaching 19th-Century European Art for several years. I like to show self-portraits of artists to students so that they can imagine what these “names” actually looked like. With J.M.W. Turner, I use the self-portrait here when he was 23 years old. There is no paintbrush in his hand and he is looking straight at the viewer from a frontal position—not the usual over-the-shoulder-looking-in-the-mirror pose of most self-portraits by artists. It suggests an eager, handsome and romantic-proud young man who is anxious to present himself to a public and not necessarily as an artist. This and a watercolor he made when 15 years old are the last self-portraits made by Turner. And he was opposed to sitting for portraits by others.

I was then stunned by the physical characterization of Turner in the current movie, Mr. Turner. The actor, amazing Timothy Spall who played Turner, is short, rotund and boorish, even brutish in his appearance and grunting, clumsy behavior. A few artists managed sketches of Turner in his later years. It is these images that the writer-director Mike Leigh must have referred to for his characterization. The nose became more pronounced as he aged and his physique grew in girth. He is only seen in profile, head tilted downward, as if shielding himself from the stare of others. In the movie he is furtive like this as he comes and goes. We cannot know from the movie what brought about this transformation. It is the story of the artist’s last years when his career was set and his reputation established.

Joseph Mallord William Turner by John Phillip, c. 1850, watercolor, 12 1/8 x 9 3/8", National Portrait Gallery London

What strikes me about the movie is that the director presents us with a completely non-stereotypical image of an artist. There is nothing romantic about this Turner—he is repulsive and often hard to look at and hardly sympathetic, particularly in his interactions with women. This characterization turns on its head our notions of the creative, sensitive genius. Yet the facts are there—he was one of the greatest original painters during the beginning of Romanticism and the modern era and he had patrons, from newly affluent bourgeois circles and among the aristocracy, who fawned over him. His successful patrons of the Industrial Revolution saw in his radical experimentation with paint an equivalent to their own entrepreneurial enterprises.

Cornelius Varley, J.M.W. Turner, c. 1815, pencil drawing, 19 1/2 x 14 1/2", Museums Sheffield

One portrait sketch by Cornelius Varley was identified in 2010 as Turner, when he was about 40 years old, through close examination with his death mask. (See article in The Guardian.) This Turner is more in tune with what we want him to have been– the sensitive, pensive artist grown wise with age. Where is the “truth” in portraits? Which Turner do we choose to remember?

— Gayle Rodda Kurtz, Zeteo Managing Editor



J.M.W. Turner, Self-Portrait, c. 1798, oil, 28 3/4 x 22 3/4, Tate Gallery; John Phillip, J.M.W. Turner, c. 1850, watercolor, 12 1/8 x 9 3/8″, National Portrait Gallery London; Cornelius Varley, J.M.W. Turner, c. 1815, pencil drawing, 19 1/2 x 14 1/2″, Museums Sheffield.


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