J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851) is one of Britain’s most celebrated artists. Working across oil, watercolor, and print, Turner responded vividly to the natural and human worlds and to the urgent events of his day: the aftermath of the Napoleonic conflicts, the rapid transformation of Britain’s landscape and skies under industrialization, and the advent of new technologies, including steam-powered transportation by sea and rail. Turner’s expansive oeuvre and his innovative approaches to representing color, land, and sky have made him enduringly attractive to generations of curators and scholars. In the public realm, Turner’s continued significance to British art history and the national imagination saw his Self-Portrait (1799) and The Fighting Temeraire (1839) selected for the British £20 banknote in 2020.
The foundation of Turner’s enduring critical reputation was the ardent support of critic John Ruskin (1819–1900), who praised the “truth” of Turner’s vision and sentiment. Ruskin’s work set the stage for a proliferation of scholarship, often concerned with the artist’s skill in representing light and atmosphere. In the twentieth century, Turner’s almost abstract later works have repeatedly featured in discourses of the modern, even as his subjects are rooted in his specific historical milieu. Most recently, Turner’s relationship to institutions of imperialism and slavery has been examined, including his political affiliations with British abolitionist movements, notably through discussions of The Slave Ship (1840). He has also been positioned within art history’s ecocritical turn, with scholars focusing on Turner’s depictions of industrialization and whaling to interrogate contemporary attitudes and relationships to natural resources and the climate crisis.
The year 2025 will mark the 250th anniversary of Turner’s birth. In anticipation of this event, the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) will host a one-day, online symposium to critically consider the state and meaning of Turner scholarship. Thinking through the extensive Turner historiography, the symposium seeks to explore the key ideas, underlying assumptions, and future direction of Turner research, and to consider its place within the broader field of British studies. We are particularly interested in critical analyses of the literature and studies that identify or exemplify potential new perspectives and approaches. We welcome proposals from established and emerging scholars on any topic within Turner studies and encourage participants to be imaginative in their approach.
Themes for consideration include but are not limited to:
- The role of art historians, critics, curators, and institutions in building and maintaining Turner’s artistic prominence
- Turner’s place within past and contemporary approaches to British studies
- Turner’s place within discourses of modernity
- Turner’s own contribution to the construction of his artistic reputation
- “Realism” and “idealism” in Turner’s works
- Narrative and intentional meanings in Turner’s works, and what these might tell us about the artist’s broader social, cultural, and political positioning
- Issues of nationalism, race, and empire in Turner’s work
- Gaps that remain in studies of Turner’s artistic practice, including but not limited to his professional persona, relationships, and networks, and his engagement with the contemporary art market and/or print culture
- Innovative approaches to understanding Turner and his works, including new methodologies, critical perspectives, and future directions
This symposium will be held online on September 22, 2023. Please submit an abstract of no more than 250 words and a short biography by July 7, 2023 here. Final presentations should not exceed twenty minutes in length.