Turner Monet Twombly: Later Paintings opened this week at Tate Liverpool. Art Historian and RA Magazine contributor Simon Wilson picks his favourite work by Turner in the show.
JMW Turner has come down to us as above all as the supreme painter of light and colour. His reputation today thus largely rests on our perception of him as a pioneer of the modernist idea that a painting should function as a purely visual object, rather than as one conveying a story of some kind or specific information about a place. San Benedetto is a quintessential example of what we most admire in Turner.
Turner was a great traveller from the very beginnings of his career in the 1790s, but it was only in 1817, after the Napoleonic wars were finally over, that he was able to resume travelling on the Continent and only in 1819 did make his way to Italy for the first time. It was there, in Venice particularly, that he had the revelation that resulted in the change in his work that eventually resulted in paintings such as San Benedetto.
Joseph Mallord William Turner. 'St Benedetto, Looking toards Fusina', exhibited 1843. Tate, 2011.
The heart of Venice - the Palazzo Ducale at San Marco, the Salute, the Grand Canal and the great quaysides of the Schiavone and the Guidecca Canal - presents a spectacle of white marble clad buildings rising out of water. The Venetian sun strikes these and the water, generating a glitter of reflected light that saturates the atmosphere. This is the city of which the French Romantic poet Théophile Gautier famously wrote, about ten years after Turner painted San Benedetto, 'In a rainbow of colours/ Bosom dripping with pearls/ The Venus of the Adriatic/ Rises pink and white from the waves.' A dedicated art lover, Gautier might even have seen Venetian paintings by Turner.
Turner was thunderstruck by the Venetian spectacle and his immediate response was a series of possibly the most ravishing watercolours in the whole history of art. For reasons that are not fully understood, it was only later that he began to translate this experience into oil paintings, producing in the last decade or so of his long career Venetian scenes that are some of the most extreme manifestations in his oeuvre of his obsession with light as the chief element in painting.
John Ruskin the great critic, defender and connoisseur of Turner's work, considered San Benedetto to be 'the best Venetian picture that he has left us'. It shows a sunset effect as we look down the Guidecca Canal, which runs directly east-west. We know we are in Venice from the unmistakeable and evocative silhouettes of the gondolas, but Turner tells us nothing more of the urban topography. Instead all solid form is dissolved in coloured light. Even the title is uninformative, since as Ruskin first pointed out, there is in reality no church of San Benedetto in this view.
But the painting is nevertheless carefully structured. Turner uses the quays on either side as balancing elements on the horizontal plane to the central vertical of the sunset effect, which is reflected with equal strength in sky and water. The composition thus has a strong , basically cruciform underpinning, which ultimately derives from Turner's admiration for the great founders of landscape painting, Claude and Poussin. Typically of Turner's greatest paintings, San Benedetto thus has its formal roots, as well as its ostensible subject, in the classical past, while looking forward to the abstraction and even the geometry of modern art.