The latest Turner exhibition pairs him, irresistibly, with a 17th century pastoral master whom he himself greatly admired. Jack Watkins reviews 'Turner Inspired – In the Light of Claude' at the National Gallery.
Even the greats have their own idols, and geniuses imitate their chosen favourites from the past. JMW Turner may well be the finest artist Britain has ever produced, but when he first saw Claude Lorrain’s Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, he was moved to tears because, he confided to a fellow artist, “I shall never be able to paint anything like that picture.” Throughout his career, however, he would produce pastoral scenes that owed so much to the grand manner of the Frenchman that he became known as the ‘English Claude’.
Still, you could be forgiven for thinking that the pair are odd bedfellows. Surely 17th century Claude’s carefully composed scenes of Arcadian serenity are entirely different in spirit to the restless compositions of the later man, seething as these often do with the fury of the elements? Today, it is Turner’s later works – the likes of Rain, Steam and Speed, those gateposts to Impressionism – that are our markers of his greatness. To his contemporaries, however, they were merely evidence of a once-rich talent gone bad. It was Turner’s more conventional works, such as the majestic Crossing the Brook, an elevated, misty-hued idealisation of Devon’s Tamar Valley, or stately presentations such as Linlithgow Palace, Scotland, which satisfied their tastes. Even as Turner became more experimental, though, he never lost his regard for Claude. Before his death in 1851 he stipulated that two of Lorrain’s works – Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba and Landscape with the Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca should be hung alongside two of his own – Dido Building Carthage and Sun Rising through Vapour – ensuring a link at the National Gallery which has endured to this day.
There is another reason for binding these two together. Although Claude is claimed by the French as one of their own – despite having spent most of his life in the Roman Campagna he was born in the province of Lorraine (hence his name) in 1600 – the English, with their deep appreciation and emotional attachment to the countryside and the pictorial landscape, have also always reserved a special place in their hearts for him. When King George IV described Turner as a painter after the style of Claude, there could have been no bigger compliment.
The collecting of his paintings had been the enthusiastic pursuit of wealthy estate owners since the eighteenth century, and the landscape movement of the time must have drawn inspiration from his rural settings. Claude was recognised as painting the ‘ideal landscape’: as perfectly ordered as classical monuments – spacious, serene and bathed in the light of paradise. To look at a painting by Claude is indeed an almost heavenly experience, like gazing into infinity. Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche wrote of gaining a sense of psychological release when standing in front of one of his canvases.
Unfortunately, as is often the case with an artist of his time, we know very little of the man himself. A portrait here shows him of unremarkable appearance, with a deeply furrowed brow. He may have arrived in Rome in 1613, at the age of 13, and the region around the city would remain the focus of his inspiration for the rest of his life. Never marrying, neither did he have a workshop – unusual for an artist of his stature – but what is clear is that at some point he made a decision to specialise in landscapes.
Claude was friends with another great French painter Nicolas Poussin, and for years drew unfavourable comparisons. Poussin was a great theorist and philosopher, whereas Lorrain left only three known letters to posterity, had difficulty writing, and got confused with numbers over ten. He must have known where his strengths lay, though, and unlike his intellectual friend, saw that his deepest receptivity was towards the countryside, rather than architecture or historical allegory. He spent hours in fields observing the changing effects of the light, and was pretty much the first artist to paint the sun and make it a central point of the composition. If Turner played a major part in the elevation of landscape painting – long ranked among the lowliest of genres – to new levels of respectability, Claude might be regarded as the first great master of the picturesque.
It seems that Claude was a quiet, benign man who went on contentedly working hard and producing art of the highest order until his death aged 82. Turner was scarcely less industrious, and of a similarly background, with no great claims to education, dishevelled in appearance, gruff of manner, and boasting of few friends. Painter Edward Dayes wrote: ‘The man must be loved for his works, for his person is not striking nor his conversation brilliant’, which must be about as unflattering a pen portrait of an artist as has ever been written.
Turner was though, famously, a precocious talent, exhibiting at the Royal Academy at the age of 15. Yet it was not until his first encounter with the work of Claude that his own painting truly began to fire the imagination. In 1802, the end of the Napoleonic War having made travel abroad a possibility at last, Turner made his first trip to the continent; of all the works he saw, it was those of Claude upon which he focused. Yet if he was indeed the English Claude, his ambition was to create idealised pastoral scenes with an unquestionably British element factored in: most notably the changeable climate. ‘An endless variety is on our side and opens new field of novelty,’ he wrote. ‘The soil is British and so should be the harvest.’
The proportion of paintings in the National Gallery show is greatly in favour of Turner, so it would be unfair to draw hard and fast conclusions, but a few general points are clear. Claude is never less than a delight to look at. His pictures are always tranquil, and the eye journeys easily across the surface, from foreground to middle distance, to the great yonder, resting from time to time on individual features: trees (of which he was the most wonderful painter), lakes, streams, bridges and temples, small eminences and, ultimately, mountains. The figures in the foreground, the ostensible subject matter, seem almost incidental, dwarfed by nature’s majesty under a soft sky. Yet Claude was not a risk taker and seldom altered the tone, whereas the more ambitious Turner was prone to reach for effects that occasionally eluded his grasp.
Claude is like a favourite story-teller who never disappoints; Turner the genius who would sometimes go up in flames. In Claude, the sun is life-giving and the countryside bountiful, whereas in Turner you may feel sometimes the glare could burn your eyes out and the turbulence of the storms could kill you. I went to this exhibition expecting to cast Turner as the inferior imitator, but looking at the likes of Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Night that view is unsustainable. You cannot, in any case, make quality judgements of men painting for different times. All you can say is this – there may have been more intellectual artists in history, but never was there a pairing more capable of creating landscape art of such spectacular beauty.
'Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude' continues to 5 June
in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery.
See www.nationalgallery.org.uk for ticket prices and further information