PARIS.- The British landscapist J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) was highly unusual in that he responded to the works of the old Masters and his contemporaries throughout his lengthy career. This often anxious, pernickety, deliberately competitive but always fertile exchange was an integral part of his work as a painter. Turner emerged in the mid-1790s as a particularly gifted and ambitious watercolourist, rivalling his greatest contemporaries (including his friend Thomas Girton (1775-1802)) but also eager to improve his painting technique by studying the Welsh landscapist Richard Wilson (1713-1782) and visiting private collections. In the absence of museums, the early British collections gave him access to the old masters he sought to equal.
As a young man he was moved to tears by one of Claude Lorrains paintings (1600-1682), despairing that he would ever do as well. But his work did not go unnoticed and he exhibited at the Royal Academy at an early age, readily emulating contemporary painters and watercolourists. Driven by a powerful ambition, he broadened his fields of investigation: topographic watercolours, seascapes, classical landscapes, fantastic landscapes, genre scenes and history paintings. This variety reflects the wide range of references he had accumulated.
At first he faithfully applied the methods of the budding English watercolour tradition. When he turned to oil painting, he took inspiration from the Dutch landscape painters in the Rembrandt tradition, using a narrow, sombre colour range. The stimulating and already classical example of his great predecessor Richard Wilson led him, towards the turn of the century, to tackle classical landscapes of broader scope and brighter colours. At the same time he studied the art of the great landscape painters working in Italy in the 17th century: Salvatore Rosa (1615-1673) and Nicolas Poussin (1596-1665). Far from producing pastiches of these great models, Turner let powerful, turbulent energy upset the perfection of their harmonious compositions and came close to launching the masterly British tradition of fantastic landscapes with The Deluge (1805, Tate) directly inspired by the painting of the same name by Nicolas Poussin (1664, Louvre). The two canvases will be shown side-by-side in the exhibition. Turners few sallies into history painting (The Holy Family, 1803, Queens collection, or Venus and Adonis: Adonis departing for the chase circa 1805, private collection) used richer, deeper colours influenced by Titian (circa 1490-1576) (Virgin with a Rabbit circa 1530, Louvre) and Claude Lorrain. His small figure paintings rival with lesser known masters from the period such as Watteau (1684-1721) (What you will!, 1822, Williamstown, Clark Institute) or his most famous rivals such David Wilkie (1785-1841). The fruitful dialogue with the landscape artists of the following generation, Bonington (1802-1828) (French Coast with Fishermen 1826, Tate) and Constable (1776-1837) (The opening of Waterloo Bridge, 1829, Tate) amplified the freedom of Turners brushwork and tone (Calais Sands, Low Water, Poissards Collecting Bait, 1830, Bury Art Gallery or Beached Boat circa 1828, Tate). After 1820, his discovery of Venice (Venice from the Porch of the Madonna della Salute, 1835, New York, Metropolitan Museum) and a more intensive study of Claude Lorrain led to more sophisticated colour and a mastery of multiplane, vaporous compositions (Palestrina Composition, 1828, Tate). As Turner himself wished, the exhibition will compare one of his most complex masterpieces, The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire (1817, Tate) with two of Claude Lorrains magnificent visions which inspired it: Sunset at sea (Louvre, 1639) and Le Débarquement de Cléopâtre à Tarse (Louvre)
By deliberately engaging with other painters, Turner developed his dazzling freedom to paint which reached its apogee in the last decade of his career (Snow Storm, Steam-Boat Off a Harbours Mouth, 1842, London, Tate).
Turner and the Masters is an illustrated demonstration of the way Turner constructed his remarkable vision throughout his long career. It brings together a hundred paintings and graphic works (studies, engravings) from major British and American collections, the Louvre, the Prado and the Tate Britain.