The Young Old Master

Was Turner ancient or modern? He himself was in no doubt about his ability to compete with both

Michael Prodger

The conundrum of J.M.W. Turner is that while he was as celebrated in his own day as he is in ours, each age has acclaimed him for quite different reasons. In the early 19th century, he was lauded as the heir and equal to some of art’s great names, with his feet anchored in the past. The contemporary view of him is of an artist who emerged from the Romantic maelstrom as a proto-Modern, with a gaze fixed firmly on the future. So how to tell which view — Turner the ancient or the modern — is right? After all, as the man himself commented, art is “a rummy business”.

Turner and the Masters, the exhibition opening this month at Tate Britain, suggests that both viewpoints can be reconciled by following a key strand of his career: his competition with the Old Masters. Such comparisons can leave the featured artist with a diminished rather than an enhanced reputation. Picasso and the Masters, a similar recent exercise, left the Spaniard looking rather feeble against those painters (Velazquez, Goya, etc) he tried to emulate. Turner’s claims, however, are more ironclad.

Indeed, if there is common ground between Turner and Picasso, it is in their self-confidence. Picasso may have been art’s ultimate turkey cock but Turner was no slouch: “I am the real lion,” he proclaimed. “I am the great lion of the day.” Turner’s bravado was, however, tempered by his training. At the Royal Academy schools, which he joined in 1789 at the age of 14, the example of the past was paramount. Under Joshua Reynolds students were told: “Study the works of the great masters, for ever…consider them as models which you are to imitate, and at the same time as rivals with whom you are to contend.” While Picasso cut straight to the contention, Turner learned his imitation first. 

He was helped in this by the huge influx of top-quality pictures that entered the country as a result of the French Revolution. For the first time, native artists were no longer restricted for their exemplars to Grand Tour souvenirs in country houses but could see Titians, Rembrandts, Poussins, Murillos and others in London’s salerooms as entire French collections were put on the market. Because of the Revolutionary wars, Britons couldn’t travel to Europe but here was the cream of European art coming to Britain. The influx put Turner on his mettle.

Although he was excited by the Italian Renaissance paintings he saw, his two great inspirations and rivalries were with the French and the Dutch — in particular with Poussin’s and especially Claude Lorrain’s ethereal classical landscapes and with the views of Willem van de Velde, Jacob van Ruisdael and Albert Cuyp. Figurative painting was never his strong point but his favoured models were, like him, nature painters. What they showed, however, was not a slavish imitation of nature but what might be termed naturalism — plus: a poetic and, in Claude’s case, an ennobling version of land and seascapes. In them, Turner found new effects of light and shade, compositions and new ways of making art out of base nature. 

His method was not to copy but to absorb. His study in the early 1800s of a series of Claude seaport scenes in the Angerstein collection left a lifelong imprint on his art. Whenever he subsequently thought of Claude he imagined “amber-coloured ether” and “every hue and tone of summer’s evident heat, rich, harmonious, true and clear”. The Frenchman’s principles of composition became his own: the high viewpoint with framing trees melding into a middle ground with water before reaching a hazy, mountainous horizon is the starting point for innumerable Turner landscapes. And no matter that it was Wales, Yorkshire or the Thames valley he was painting, the light of the Roman campagna suffuses all.

Similarly with the Dutch, he learned that boats ploughing through foaming sea could have more than anecdotal interest. There was real artistry (and for Turner aesthetics were always more important than mere representation) in catching the shifts of sunlight, wind and water. He painted some 60 “Dutch” works but an early chance to show what he had learned came when the Duke of Bridgewater commissioned him to paint a companion piece to his A Rising Gale (1672) by the “Vandyke of Ship painters”, Willem van de Velde. The response was Dutch Boats in a Gale, also known as the Bridgewater Sea-piece (1801), a lurching swell of a picture in which Turner brought an added painterliness to the Dutchman’s observational accuracy. The picture, revealingly a foot or so bigger than van de Velde’s, was a great critical success and confirmed Turner’s estimation of his own talent; as well it might, hung as it was alongside the Duke’s other works by Titian, Raphael, Claude and Poussin. This was exalted company for the 25-year-old son of a cockney barber. 

The question Turner asked of himself was how to cope with the past. His answer was to shape an entirely personal art out of it. The steam clouds of colour and shadowy forms of his later landscapes are the direct descendants of his earlier, more faithful Claudean and Dutch works. He transformed them by turning up the dial on their expressive and poetic qualities and making paint itself the message rather than the medium. 

Turner’s ambition was to become an Old Master while still alive. This exhibition, in which his models and the work he spun from them will be hung together, will help show how successful he was. He never doubted himself: in his will he gifted to the nation two major landscapes of his own on the condition that they be hung in the National Gallery next to two views by Claude. His intentions could not have been any clearer. Although it is hard to imagine immodest Turner proclaiming Newton’s celebrated words, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” he, more than any artist, would have acknowledged the truth of it.

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