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The landscape of a painter's mind

J.M.W. Turner's inexplicable genius

How does the sublimity of a Turner painting issue from the unprepossessing, uneducated, somewhat crude son of a barber, a man who throughout his life avoided staring people full in the face?

One of the most important services that James Hamilton performs in this biography of J.M.W. Turner is illuminating just how much art, and how many different genres, Turner executed. The man was a machine, yet rarely has there been a painter whose work so little fits that description. Moving from a grand oil to a tiny domestic watercolor, Turner accomplished each with the apparent ease born only from great art.

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Turner used his extraordinary talent to paint landscape, which, as Hamilton points out, "does not stare back." Oddly private throughout his life, especially in light of the incredible number of paintings he sold (by one count, he left over 20,000 oils alone), Turner was genial, if awkward, in public life.

The reasons for his ill graces seem obvious, though psychology plays very little part in this biography. Turner saw his ill-tempered mother taken to the asylum before he was grown, and except for making his father his paid servant, Turner trusted little to familial love.

His father dedicated himself early to finding opportunities for this preternaturally gifted child. By 1791, young Joseph was painting scenery at the Pantheon Opera house. Once, after a fire broke out behind the stage, the boy showed up to make copious pencil sketches of the theater's interior and exterior. From them, he laboriously worked up a pair of watercolors, which he sold to a professional rival of the Pantheon's architect, James Wyatt. Turner was all of 16 years old.

By the early 1790s, the boy was receiving commissions to paint various nearby views. Over the next five years, the English began to enjoy picturesque travel, delighting in trips around the newly popular travel destinations of Wales, the Lake District, and Scotland. Young Turner seemed at times almost in a frenzy to travel, as if he had to gather to himself the views, the scenery, the beauty he meant to reproduce.

When he first went to France, it was not Paris but the Alpine landscapes he had to see immediately. He became nearly obsessed with drawing during the long days of mountain travels.

Still, at night, after he had finished his important work, Hamilton notes that he managed to find time to produce the occasional "sexy watercolor of two naked women in bed together." No surprise, then, that Turner was, all in all, a strange kind of a family man. He earned no complaints from his mistresses and children, who apparently appreciated the care with which the pater- familias tended to their financial affairs.

By the mid 1840s, Turner, whom critics had treated dismissively a decade earlier, was once again being revived by many who disputed Browning's claim that "Turner is hopelessly gone." One of the finest moments in art history's annals must consist of the young John Ruskin's discovery of Turner, when the painter was almost forgotten. The tireless old man kept painting, birthing surprise upon surprise and justifying Ruskin's lionizing, until 1851 when he finally gave up his breath and his paintbrush.

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Unfortunately, despite our strong sense of Turner's connection with natural grandeur, and even though there are hints throughout of his pleasant but distant relationships with women and his penchant for pornography, we still lack a sense of consummate personality in this biography.

Perhaps such honesty is to Hamilton's credit; he is to be commended for being careful where the evidence is simply too weak to support absolute deductions about this elusive painter. In fact, Turner's undeniable genius is what throws the reader most. The man and his art seem at odds.

Laura Claridge is the author of "Norman Rockwell: A Life" (Random House).


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