The Polluted Textures of J.M.W. Turner’s Late Works


  • Sarah Gould


This article considers the ways in which J.M.W. Turner’s engagement with the material surfaces of his works testifies to the ever-changing experiences of early industrialisation and globalisation. Turner’s obtrusive handling of paint was considered excessive by many of his contemporaries; his use of impasto was, especially in his late works, thought to thwart representation itself. The disruptive dimension of his technique has in turn become one of the main entry points for critical evaluations of his work and, for art historians, a crucial marker of his modernity. Shared by some art historical studies concentrating on this question is the idea that Turner’s treatment of matter is regarded as avant-garde because it testifies to a consciousness of form. Contrary to this view, this paper aims to show that an alternative conceptualisation of texture as a semiotically unstable category might contribute to reprocessing Turner’s attention to atmospheres. It will be my contention that through the expressivity of the painterly medium, Turner introduces a new relation to observed matter such as polluted air, both setting him apart from his contemporaries, and enabling him to illustrate subjects that were outside of traditional representations.