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Biography of painter Turner has little warmth

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The most cloying American artist of the 20th century was almost certainly Thomas Kinkade (1958-2012), whose popular paintings depicted what seemed to be well-lighted houses for elves. His work, as Joan Didion wrote, “typically featured a cottage or a house of such insistent coziness as to seem actually sinister, suggestive of a trap designed to attract Hansel and Gretel.”

Kinkade added verbal insult to visual injury when he trademarked the phrase “painter of light,” so that he could attach it, like a pat of margarine, to his name. This phrase had, of course, historically been applied to the master British painter J.M.W. Turner, who had no need of a trademark. It was as if Harry Styles had decided to call himself “chairman of the board.”

Turner (1775-1851) has been having a good decade. In 2014 he was the subject of Mike Leigh’s gruff and witty biographical film “Mr. Turner,” with the miraculous Timothy Spall. This year, the Bank of England announced that Turner would soon begin to appear on the 20-pound note.

The painter is also the subject of a new biography, “Turner: The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J.M.W. Turner,” by English writer and television producer Franny Moyle. It’s a large and ambitious book, and it gets his story onto the page. But “Turner” has little style or warmth. Often it seems to have been composed on autofill.

Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in London, one year before America’s Declaration of Independence. As a child, he was called William. His father ran a wig and barber shop in Covent Garden, and when Turner began to show talent at a young age, the older man put his drawings on the shop walls and sold them.

To attend to Turner’s life is to again realize that while talent is good, artistic careers must be seized. Turner had an intense painterly work ethic, it seems, from the time he emerged from the womb. (He probably sketched his mother’s knees on the journey out.) He was consistently in trouble in school for looking out the window and drawing rather than paying attention.

He was an introverted boy who grew into a disagreeable man. He was short, beak-nosed, blustery, brusque. One of the pleasures of Moyle’s biography is reading once again — there have been many biographies of Turner — about this painter’s dyspeptic side.

He could be charming and charitable when he wanted. More often he was self-centered and ungenerous in business. He borrowed things and did not return them. When a wealthy weekend host asked him to critique his amateur painting, Turner obliged but later sent the man a bill.

He went on a sketching trip rather than attend his daughter’s wedding. While mostly omitting his family from his will, he left money for a monument to himself.

When people saw his canvases, the ill will faded away. Turner was the most gifted and most celebrated sea and landscape painter of his time — and perhaps of all time. His work was filled with chiaroscuro effects and brewing drama. Other painters’ work seemed enervated next to his.

He traveled relentlessly, often placing himself in physical peril, to find views worth painting. He nearly died crossing the Alps in winter. He was sometimes caught at night with nowhere to sleep. He didn’t mind roughing it.

As Turner aged, his work grew more intense and experimental. He painted what seemed to be dreamscapes. Like a poet, he began to be more interested in emotion than pure representation. Many critics and more sedate painters turned against his work.

Turner’s sex life had a clandestine quality. After having his heart broken when young, he never married. He had a succession of mistresses, however, some of whom lived with him for many years. One of them, Sarah Danby, bore him two daughters. Turner made many explicit erotic drawings and apparently slept with prostitutes.

It is hard to make descriptions of landscape painting after landscape painting interesting, and indeed Moyle does not. Her biography never warms to the touch.

But she does some things well, notably setting Turner’s career in the context of British art at the time. There were few public galleries in London; art was owned by the wealthy. Most citizens had never seen an old master painting. Turner came of age as the private patronage system was ending and artists were beginning to deal with the wider public in terms of selling their work.

There’s a possibly apocryphal story that Turner once lashed himself to a ship’s mast to fully experience a snowstorm at sea. This biography will often make the reader feel lashed to the mast, as well. But on occasion it will send you back with fresh eyes to look at Turner’s work, which has lost none of its power.

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