Biography and Vulnerability: Loss, Dying and Death in the Romantic Paintings of J.M.W. Turner (1775—1851)

Steven P. Wainwright (University of London, UK, steven.wainwright at, Clare Williams (University of London, UK)

DOI: 10.1191/0967550705ab015oa


Narratives of suffering and vulnerability are an important theme in western art, the humanities and the social sciences. It is argued here that J.M.W. Turner's pictures, like those of many artists, are biographical tales. The central tenet of Turner's romantic art is the arousal of sensation and Turner's pictures include wonderfully evocative `visual poems' on the human experiences of loss, decline, `the fallacies of hope', grief and death. This paper first explores the connections between Turner's biography and his art through a discussion of several of Turner's key paintings. It then moves on to a more in-depth discussion of two pictures painted by Turner in 1842, when he was 67 years old: Peace — Burial at Sea, and War — The Exile and the Rock Limpet. These paintings can be seen as insightful biographical narratives on the embodiment of vulnerability. In conclusion, it is suggested that Turner's paintings of loss and death are valuable exemplars of the capacity of art to meld together biography, narrative, vulnerability, suffering and embodiment.


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