National Gallery inherits Turner's debt to Claude with show putting both in the same light

By Mark Sheerin | 19 April 2012
Oil painting of a moonlit seascape with sail boats
Keelmen Heaving Coals by Night, Jospeph Mallord William Turner (1835)© all rights reserved. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Widner Collection
Exhibition: Turner Inspired: in the Light of Claude, National Gallery, London, until June 5 2012

To build a show around a comparison between two artists is, for many critics, akin to a red rag for a bull. Most commentators do not want to be told something they know already, or worse still, they do not want to be told something with which they cannot agree.

So while Turner’s debt to Claude is common knowledge, this show also points to a divergence in the English painter’s work. By which point, to see both sharing the temporary exhibition space seems to overstate the obvious.

But Turner himself would surely have loved this show. You cannot overstate the influence of Claude on a painter who burst into tears upon his first encounter with the French artist.

Turner also went to his grave determined that two of his best known works, Dido Building Carthage and Sun rising Through Vapour be hung in the National Gallery alongside a pair of masterpieces by his artistic model.

So given that we know about the English painter’s debt to his baroque forebear, does it really do any harm to reiterate and explore this relationship? It certainly does no harm to spend time with a show full of landscapes bathed in golden light from the romantic prism which both artists shared for much of their careers.

Perhaps the most recognisable trope which passed from the 17th to 19th centuries is the placement of a setting or rising sun dead centre in the canvas. Both Claude and Turner were artistic Copernicans, although when the English painter decides to light a scene with the moon, that too is central in a work called Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Night.

This masterpiece is on loan from the National Gallery in Washington. While the composition still owes much to Claude (sailboat masts flank an open expanse of light on the water) the drama in the wings, as Keelmen set off flares, is thanks to Turner alone. Because what this show demonstrates, is that despite artistic models, there is no getting away from individual sensibilities.

Oil painting of a pastoral landscape with figures in the foreground
Landscape with the Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca, Claude, 1604/5?-1682© all rights reserved. Courtesy The National Gallery, London
They may share a predilection for carefully staged scenes and golden light. But under the brush of the earlier painter, light is used illuminate detail. The way he picks out foreground, middleground, background, and deep background in Landscape with the Father of Psyche Sacrificing at the Temple of Apollo is crisp and storybook like.

Meanwhile Turner uses light to dissolve scenery. In a work like Tivoli: Tobias and the Angel, the cliffside crumbles, waters foam up and tree tops smudge into a lemon coloured sky. The English painter is more poet than narrator. Everything with him is vapours and he has many more moods than Claude.

Perhaps the pair really might be compared with Echo and Narcissus, Turner looking on while Claude drinks from the font of classicism. The two painters’ treatment of Ovid’s tale comprise the first two works in the current show and are perhaps the most alike, from the dark waters of the pool to the cottony tops of the trees.

That’s not wishing to frame the relationship in psychoanalytic terms. But should you wish to, you might put this whole show on the couch and ascribe its very reason for being to a latent sense of guilt for the years the National Gallery declined to follow Turner’s dying wish.

After the elemental drama of his dawns and dusks, we come across a roomful of letters in which the bureaucratic to and fro of Turner’s bequests to the nation take centre stage.

So if Britain’s most celebrated old master had an eye on posterity, what’s not to like about a show which falls in line with his own ideas about his work, and that’s whether or not you think he knew best.

  • Open 10am-6pm (9pm Friday). Admission £6-£13.20 (family ticket £24). Book online.

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