RA Magazine Spring 2012
Issue Number: 114
Shedding light on Turner
A new look at Turner’s landscapes reveals he was more indebted to the classicism of Claude than we might imagine, writes Ian Warrell
Many artists have been influenced by Claude, including David Hockney RA, whose exhibition at Burlington House devotes a room to his interpretation of Claude’s Sermon on the Mount (c.1656). But undoubtedly the most famous was J.M.W. Turner. First-time visitors to Room 15 of the National Gallery’s permanent collection are often intrigued to find Turner’s pictures, apparently out of sequence, coupled with a predecessor who worked two centuries earlier.
Two walls are occupied by impressively atmospheric paintings dating from the 1640s by Claude. Facing them are two great landscapes from the first half of Turner’s career, one of which – Sun Rising Through Vapour (c.1807) – reworks the sun-drenched harbour subject that had been one of Claude’s innovations. This provocative juxtaposition, which was specified in Turner’s will, was devised as a means of ensuring his art would always be viewed in conjunction with that of his predecessor, whose works were then considered to be the apogee of landscape art.
J.M.W. Turner, 'Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Night', 1835. Courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
At its simplest level, Turner’s request for this pairing seems to imply a hubristic desire to claim he had superceded Claude’s achievement. But the assumption that his intentions were so limited, or so crude, is surely too simplistic. So, while the face-off in Room 15 provides the basic springboard for the National Gallery’s spring exhibition, ‘Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude’, the 60 paintings, watercolours and sketchbooks in the show survey a much wider range of responses to Claude’s art, providing insights into Turner’s lifelong captivation.
We invariably think of Turner as a progressive artist, yet paradoxically he was devoted to the classical compositions of Claude’s idealised and illuminated scenes of the Roman Campagna. The stunning View of the Roman Campagna from Tivoli, Evening (1644-45), is being lent by HM The Queen. What Turner learned from such works enabled him to redefine the representation of the British landscape, conferring an idyllic quality on scenes that might otherwise seem prosaic. Fine examples in the show include Linlithgow Palace (1810) and Crossing the Brook (1815).
But it was Turner’s experience of the actual landscapes that had inspired Claude in Italy, and especially the pervasive character of southern light, which transformed his own approach to painting in the second half of his career. Whether in oil or watercolour, there is repeatedly a sense that his subjects are subordinate to his desire to recreate transcendent light effects. At the same time, even as Turner dramatised the processes of industrialisation in paintings such as Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Night (1835) which were produced in tandem with his sumptuous evocations of Venice, he remained wedded to the compositional prototypes he had absorbed from Claude. The connection with Claude in such works is perhaps unexpected, but reveals that the essence of his own modernity was often founded on a love of traditional forms.
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