Turner and the Masters at Tate Britain

By Ed Sexton | 22 September 2009
a painting of a sailing boat on a rough sea

(Above) JMW Turner, Dutch Boats in a Gale ("The Bridgewater Sea Piece") (Exh 1801). Private collection

Exhibition: Turner and the Masters, Tate Britain, London, until January 31 2010

At first glance it seems like Tate Britain has come across a simple idea of displaying Turner alongside comparative works in order to learn more about the great painter's artistic personality.

However, the exhibition goes far beyond mere contrasts, showing how Turner paid homage, criticised, improved and even battled some of the greats of the art world.

a painting of a sailing boat on a rough sea

(Above) Willem Van de Velde the Younger, A Rising Gale (circa 1672). Toledo Museum of Art

The idea of displaying Turner alongside the work of the masters is not new. He was commissioned by the Duke of Bridgewater to paint a piece to go alongside a work by Van de Velde the Younger, a master of marine painting.

The two have not been displayed together since 1837, so this is the first opportunity in generations to see the works side by side, a coup for curator David Solkin.

a landscape scene with a river and woodland

JMW Turner, Crossing the Brook (exh RA 1815). © Tate

Having gained recognition and commissions early on in his career Turner was elected to be a full member of the Royal Academy in 1802, a prestigious title only bestowed on 40 people at one time.

The same year saw a brief outbreak of peace in the Anglo-French wars, which gave Turner his first opportunity to hop across the Channel to see the work of the masters at the Louvre and study the Grand Style of the Northern European artists.

It was a trip that had a profound influence, and from then on he seemed to deliberately produce pieces that could be hung in the company of the great masters.

A clear example here is the pairing of Turner's Crossing the Brook with Claude Lorrain's Moses Saved From the Waters. Turner's work is so similar that it initially looks like a rather grand exercise in spot the difference.

a landscape scene with a river and woodland and a bridge in the distance

Claude Lorrain, Moses saved from the waters (1639). Museo del Prado, Madrid

In paying homage to Claude, a French master of the European landscape tradition, Turner adds his own new imagery and vitality through his innovative use of colour.

That said, Turner still had much to learn from the likes of Rembrandt, whose work clearly helped the British painter develop this use of rich colour and chiaroscuro. Titian and Veronese also inspired him to put colour ahead of form.

It was a different matter when it came to learning from his contemporaries, and the exhibition highlights how Turner and that other great British landscape painter, John Constable, didn't get on.

The pairing of Constable's Opening of Waterloo Bridge and Turner's Helvoetsluys revisits the intense rivalry developed between the two. When the painitngs were displayed together in 1832 Turner turned up to the private view, pulled out his paintbrush and added a red buoy to his piece in a effort to counter the riot of colour in the mortified Constable's work.

a view of a city from a balcony

JMW Turner, Rome from the Vatican. Raffaelle, Accompanied by La Fornarina, Preparing his Pictures for the Decoration of the Loggia (exh RA, 1820). © Tate

But beyond the rivalries, with such great paintings by the likes of Rubens andf Canaletto also on show, it is hard to pick out specific highlights. Turner's only royal commission, The Battle of Trafalgar, a vast work with swathes of deep colour depicting the great sea battle, is an obvious stand-out piece.

Rome from the Vatican, inspired by Raphael and painted on the 300th anniversary of the Italian master's death is a striking painting placing the Italian in the foreground, the whole Rome dramatically sprawled beneath him. Here is a picture encapsulating Turner's great love for the art of past masters and his desire to consciously contribute his own great art.

It illustrates how, in taking and adapting these traditions, Turner became a hugely important figure in art and a towering artist in the European landscape tradition. It's a process confirmed by the final work, Dido Rebuilding Carthage, a lasting legacy left by Turner to the National Gallery.

Admission £12.50 (concessions available), call 020 7887 8888 or visit Tate box office online.

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