The works Turner produced in his final years (1835 – 1851) were contentious. While his last watercolours found sympathetic buyers, Turner’s oil paintings were subjected to extreme critical reaction, and even led to accusations of physical and mental decline. Modern commentators, in contrast, have presented Turner as an artist with a radical late style that had little connection with Victorian Britain and anticipated Impressionism and even Abstract Expressionism. Sam Smiles reviews the works Turner produced in these last years and the critical response to them, then and subsequently. He proposes that if we are to do justice to Turner’s achievement, the final paintings need to be restored to their nineteenth-century context rather than abstracted from it.
Sam Smiles is a professor of Art History and Visual Culture whose principal research interest is British art of the last 250 years, especially the period from the founding of the Royal Academy (1768) to the death of JMW Turner (1851). He has a particular research focus on Turner’s career, critical reception and legacy. He is the author of J. M. W. Turner: The Making of a Modern Artist, Eye Witness: Artists and Visual Documentation in Britain 1770-1830 and The Image of Antiquity: Ancient Britain and the Romantic Imagination.