One of the most fulfilling things in being an art instructor is the satisfaction of having been in contact with the occasional rare individual who, even as a teenager, shows so much promise as to leave me in awe of him or her. A fellow teacher once noted at an awards assembly that it was his job to inspire others. The award he gave each year was to the student that most inspired him during that year. Inspiration is thus a two-way street. Yet some of the most inspiring students I've ever had did not become artists. Probably the most impressive artist I ever worked with is now a captain in the Air Force working on his Ph.D. in the development of airborne chemical lasers. His sister was almost as impressive. She became a sign painter. Another very inspiring young artist I once had became a petroleum engineer involved in evaluating oil leases for bank loans. At times I feel maybe I have failed in not inspiring them as much as they did me, in that they did not choose art careers. However, given their tremendous potential to excel in many things, perhaps their talents in benefiting mankind would have been wasted as "mere" artist.
Such artists are not limited to this century. In 1790, a fifteen-year-old English boy, who had studied art at the Royal academy for only two years, had one of his watercolours accepted in the Academy's annual exhibition. And lest you think this show was the English equivalent of a high school art show, think again. It was more on the level of the annual French Academy Salon. He was competing against practising, professional artists of all ages. By the age of 27 he was elected to full membership in the Royal Academy (an honour many practising artists never attained). Later he became a professor at the Royal Academy school. His name was Joseph Mallord William Turner.
J.M.W. Turner (as he's come to be known by art historians) worked only in watercolours until 1796 when, at the age of 21, he switched to oils. His early inspirations were Claude Lorrain and Nicholas Poussin. His early works were landscapes much like that of his friend and colleague, John Constable. But after four trips to Italy where he studied Renaissance painting and particularly Venetian art, his own style matured as he became intrigued by the study of coloured light and weather. His most famous painting, The Fighting "Temeraire", Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken Up, done in 1838, is one of the most profound and moving works of British art. It is both a historic painting, marking the naval transition from sail to steam, as well as a striking study in optical effects and the sun sinking into the sea. Turner died in 1851, having moved from child prodigy to master painter with a body of work that was to influence a generation of painters not yet born. Nothing like his work was to be seen for another 20 years, until the French Impressionists began explore similar colour and atmospheric studies.