Turner intended this contribution to the yearly academy competition as a mockery of the servile artistic imitation of Claude. Amusingly, the joke was lost on the panel. It declared that “Mr. Turner’s landscape has one recommendation that must always enhance the value of this most able artist’s productions; that the composition is taken verbatim from Lord Egremont’s picture of Jacob and Laban [by Claude].”
A greater irony is that even in the earliest works where Turner apparently sets out to compose a landscape in Claude’s manner, the achievement does not resemble the 17th-century painter’s imaginary Arcadian scenery.
Unlike Claude, Turner depicts actual sites, albeit not with much attention to accuracy. He evidently sat looking at Caernarvon Castle and gazing at the sea before drawing in pencil and wash a large watercolor dated 1799. While he depicted the view in a golden haze in order to achieve a Claude-like effect, the result could not have been more different.
Turner caught the misty veil created by the humidity in the air that gives the ruined castle an eerie lightness. He also noted the white froth hemming the light waves that washed against the incurving shore line. The varying tonalities of the reflections in the water are observed with a concern for realistic precision alien to 17th-century painters. Most important, the English artist responded to the poetry of nature and its cool freshness with a sensitivity at odds with the elegant artifice of Claude’s well-kempt Arcadia.
In 1803, Turner, who had been traveling through France, painted his monumental “Festival Upon the Opening of the Vintage of Mâcon.” The art historian Kathleen D. Nicholson once wrote that this is “the sort of picture Claude might have painted had he lived in northern climes.” Mr. Warrell, for his part, considers that “the essence of the view can be traced as readily to the Thames at Richmond as the French river Saône.”
While topographical veracity here, too, left Turner indifferent, his rendition of the sky with its myriad variations in grey and white betrays an acute observation of nature not found in Claude — the 17th-century master was only concerned about aesthetic effect, not the observation of the world as it is. Rock fragments in the foreground look like messy debris. What the eye sees is not modified by the Englishman for the sake of harmonious order, which on the contrary is essential to Claude’s Classicism.
In 1805, Turner began to sketch outdoors. “The Thames Near Windsor” may date from 1807. The panel, 18.7 by 26 centimeters, about 71/2 by 101/4 inches, is boldly impressionistic and eludes detail by quickly applying color patches in a manner that heralds advanced French landscape painting in the 1860s. This is as much about consigning emotions when confronted with nature in a dark moment as an attempt at transcribing visual impressions.
Emotion again comes through, if with greater restraint, in “Sun Rising Through Vapour: Fishermen Cleaning and Selling Fish.” Leaden grey clouds mass on the horizon and mist in the air blurs the outlines of ships in the distance. The lurid glimmer of the sun disk about to sink below the clouds adds to the sense of gloom. On the strand, the discarded remains of fish being cleaned in the dim light are a reminder of the harsh realities of life. Nothing could be further removed from Claude’s elegant Classical constructions with pseudo-Roman figures moving about as in some well-choreographed ballet.
True, at intervals Turner deliberately went in for compositions drawing on Claude’s imaginary landscapes with Ancient Greek structures. But even so, these fail to resemble the Italianate painter’s work.
“Dido Building Carthage, or the Rise of the Carthaginian Empire” is a masterly essay in the nuances of light. A glimmer falls from the sun on dark water. The delicate sheen on a monument close to the viewer contrasts with the ghostly whiteness tinged with a soupçon of pale yellow that shrouds another classical structure in the distance. This is a far cry from Claude’s neatly polished scenery.
Turner’s would-be Claude-style landscapes, complete with golden sky, contrast with Claude’s views that are implausible in their light effects, however ravishing these may be. In the 17th-century artist’s famous “Seaport with Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba” painted in 1648, sunlight should lightly touch a tower in the distance, but it does not. In the foreground, the projected shadows are not quite rightly directed.
The attempts at a parallel between specific pictures made in the book serve more to underline the radical differences opposing the two masters than to reveal points of similarity.
Claude’s enchanting 1646 “Landscape With Hagar and the Angel” and Turner’s 1829 “Banks of the Loire” from the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts have nothing in common. Shared features include trees on the banks of a river crossed by a bridge and this is as far as the analogy goes.
In Turner’s picture, the Loire is seen on a late afternoon. A warm glow touches the foliage of the poplars, leaving parts in darkness in an intense chiaroscuro contrast. Beyond, a pale mauvish haze envelops a hillside, a river and faintly boats. The upward thrust of the vegetation and the glorious haze give Turner’s landscape a Romantic lyricism that is at the very opposite of the 17th-century master’s placid Classicism.
By the 1830s, hardly any trace was left of Turner’s intense admiration for Claude. How to render light in its multiple nuances had become the Englishman’s overriding concern.
In “Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight,” a vault of white light hangs over the Tyneside estuary. The sky is in itself an abstract composition in pale blues and off-whites unprecedented in Western art. The reflections in the water, the outbursts of reddish-yellow flames in front of the ships at anchor give this masterpiece a visionary quality.
In his last years, Turner virtually ceased to pay attention to material reality. Despite the descriptive title, nothing in “Landscape With Water: Tivoli,” with its color blur left and right that leaves a pale yellow emptiness in the interval, reveals just what the painter was looking at.
Turner bridged all by himself the distance between two opposite poles of Western art, the carefully constructed world of the Classical age and the visionary compositions of luminous color without a real subject of his late period that amounted to abstraction. To detect a trace of Claude’s legacy in this astounding leap from one extreme to another would be to stretch the concept of “influence” quite a bit.
Turner Inspired in the Light of Claude. National Gallery. Through June 5.Continue reading the main story
The British grand tourists not only fell in love with Italy. They fell in love with the landscapes of 17th-century ex-pat artist Claude Lorrain (1604/5-1682), depicting the Roman campagna in which the gods disported themselves. JMW Turner (1775-1851) also fell for the Frenchman, whose work he had seen in significant stately homes while visiting his patrons. Turner studied and copied, and it is the anatomy of this artistic love affair over two centuries that is exposed, to enchanting effect, in the National Gallery’s spring exhibition.
Turner was marvellously ambitious. Rather like Picasso (who notoriously declared "I don’t borrow, I steal"), whenever he saw a quality in other artists which appealed he took it and used it to his great advantage. He was also willing to record his respect and admiration, however, and he admired none of his predecessors more than Claude. He was already in love with light, the pencil of nature. He took from Claude the vastness of landscape, its beauty and importance, but perhaps above all, as the exhibition title suggests, the overwhelming inspiration was a Claudian illumination, the irradiating light from the sun beaming down on an idealised landscape from the centre of a limitless sky. On his deathbed Turner's (possibly apocryphal) last words were "the Sun is God".
Compared to Claude, Turner seems almost rowdy, even rambunctious
In part, this is a visual essay on changing styles and attitudes. Compared to Claude, Turner seems almost rowdy, even rambunctious. Although he was a dazzling success with cardinals, princes, several popes and kings - even his affluent patrons suggested his prices were high - Claude's landscapes look curiously static, calm and ordered. Even so, his cult has continued, and even now is echoed in many a public park, as well as gardens such as Blenheim and Stowe.
His paintings are almost like collages from various motifs of ruins and trees, vistas and valleys. The Enchanted Castle is a fantasy wrapped around the story of Cupid and Psyche, while in Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba (pictured above) the sheer bravura of the low-lying sun makes the water glitter and gleam seemingly in a straight path of light towards the shore. In his will, Turner stipulated that this was one of the two Claudes his own paintings should hang beside in the National Gallery; here it is close to Turner’s own Sun Rising through Vapour, a more mundane subject showing fishermen cleaning their catch on the seashore.
It is, however, Turner's sheer passion for light that dominates this show by virtue of a trio of masterpieces: Regulus - a fantasy of a Roman seaport, indebted to Claude - flanks Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Night (pictured below), a genuine and terrific engagement with contemporary life. The shadowy shapes of the labourers are illuminated by fiery torches. As they unload the high-masted ships berthed to the side, the full moon pours light upon the sea. It is an extraordinary evocation of the arduous nature of the Industrial Revolution, transmogrified into a scene of irresistible beauty.
Exquisitely sombre, softly insinuating light also illuminates East Cowes Castle, the Seat of J Nash, Esq; the Regattas starting for their Moorings. Turner's still-astonishing ability – so vastly different from Claude's – to transform the observable world is perhaps summed up in two watercolour sketches. An Industrial Town, probably Birmingham, Colour Study is just that, the smoking factory chimneys punctuating a scene which varies from golden red to bluish-white swathes of light. In Sunrise 1825-1830 the central white disc is suspended in the softest variations of yellow-white possible, with just a whisper of a suggestion for horizon and shore. Claude has vanished; and Turner remains.