Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude
The son of a wig maker and barber, Joseph Mallord William Turner is regarded as one of the finest English Romantic landscape painters. And yet even great masters like Turner, known as “the painter of light” had their forerunners.
The English artist was greatly inspired by the 17th-century painter Claude’s renditions of clouds, landscapes and sunlight. This exhibition at the National Gallery, London shows work from both artists. It allows us to see how Turner tried to outdo, imitate and adapt Claude’s large compositions of classical scenes and landscapes.
One of Turner’s most impassioned homages to the 17th-century French painter Claude is Dido building Carthage. The subject is inspired by Virgil’s Latin poem, the Aeneid. It’s a complex mixture of dark foreboding and optimism, with dark green – almost black – trees in the middle distance. But on the horizon is the light. The sky shaded an iridescent yellow, as if to herald in a new dawn.
The power and scale of Turner’s work is well laid out in the gallery, his large canvases depicting shipwrecks, fires and natural catastrophes. Phenomena such as sunlight, storm, rain and fog unfold, room by room.
We see him today as very much the establishment artist. His style of landscapes and scenes of country life are favoured by hotel lobbies and company headquarters. But in his day, he was as controversial a figure as Damien Hirst, and not everyone was impressed by his move towards impressionism in later life.
He was vilified by critics for his “unintelligible chaos of colour” and seas that looked like “soap and chalk.” These swirling masses of pattern, emotion and colour are now seen as some of the best artworks ever created.
Even today, his later works such as Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway are astonishing with their vibrant sweeps of colour. The train is barely distinguishable from the murky fog and smoke that swirl around.
He is said to have uttered the last words: “The sun is God”, before dying. This goes a long way to show the highest and even spiritual esteem that Turner bestowed on the natural world. It makes you look closer and engage with the picture at a much deeper, emotional level.
Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude is at the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery until 5th June 2012. For further information or to book visit the gallery’s website here.