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Did Turner Become an Abstract Painter?

“ … Turner got three children to dabble water-colours together till he suddenly stopped them at the propitious moment.  These researches and exercises may easily be condemned as trifling, or even as a desertion of nature, but they are certainly not a desertion of art. For there may be a colour music without meaning, invented by the imagination, exactly as there is a sound music without meaning, or, at least, of which the meaning could not possibly be expressed in any other language but its own.” (P.G.Hamerton, Imagination in Landscape Painting (1896), pp.245-60. Reading these words “one is surprised that the experiments “ of ‘abstract’ art were not made earlier than they were; that they were delayed till the first decade of the twentieth century”  (Gombrich (1963) pp.147-8).


At a dinner Turner remarked of a salad “there you have my picture.”  The critics took this up.n John Bull in 1827 wrote of his Mortlake    “he is in painting, what a cook would be in gastronomy, who, fancying he could make a good curry, curried everything he could get hold of …”  In 1829 Thomas Cole wrote of Ulysses deriding Polyphemus that all the objects “look as though they were made of confectionary’s Sugar Candy Jellies.”  (Later Renoir dismissed his work as little more than patisserie.  Sir Wyke Bayliss PRA recalled a scene in a Christmas pantomime (in the 1840s) where a painting by Turner was destroyed and replaced by a composition of confectionary.  (Gage (1987), pp.3-4).

Even more rude was a German cartoon in 1829 showing the artist as defaecating, the pile of shit produced being his idea of art.  In 1846 Punch reviewing the RA exhibition illustrated Turner’s Venetian pair of Going to, and Returning from, the Ball by simply a pattern of lines.

Some have continued to deny the implication of these comments – that Turner radically departed from representation to quasi-abstraction.  Hazlitt had perceptively discerned this tendency very early on, describing Turner’s exhibits as “pictures of nothing and very like”.but

This denial has been encouraged not only by the writer’s abhorrence of 20th century Abstraction (Gombrich did not dismiss it out of hand) but by two factors.  One was the comparison made between Turner’s unfinished and finished works.  Thus Strzygowski in his “From Nature to Art” set side by side Turner’s Frosty Morning (1813) and Interior – Petworth of over two decades later.  Of course an unfinished painting will be less representational than a finished one. Secondly They misrepresent the claim, which is not that Turner was ever an Abstract painter but that his paintings tended towards Abstraction which in the 20th century was developed into full-blown Abstraction.  Wiedmann has summed this up well.  Various factors led to this tendency:

  1. The preference for the sketch over the finished work and for free brushwork.

  2. The Picturesque.

  3. Music as the chief art, allied to Colour.

The first two account for Gainsborough’s abandonment of the realism of his early landscapes for the compositions of his late ones.  In Turner’s case the third factor predominated.  On the history of the juncture of colour and music and of how the two merged in the Romantic period, see my piece on Turner and Music.

  • E,H,Gombrich, “The Vogue for Abstract Art” (1956) in Meditations on a Hobby Horse (1963, pp.147-8.

  • August Wiedmann, Romantic Roots in Modern Art (1979).

  • John Gage, J.M.W.Turner: A Wonderful Range of Mind’ (1987)

  • Selby Whittingham, “Turner’s Polyphonic Paintings”, The Jackdaw

  • Selby Whittingham, Brickbats and Bouquets for Turner: Unknown or Unregarded Critiques (2015).


Selby Whittingham, 29 October 2023.

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