When we think of J.M.W. Turner, we think of those evocative, ghostly landscapes, where ships, cliffs and trains emerge out of nowhere, half-hidden by mist and rain. We also think of quintessentially British scenes, replete with industry, romanticism and intemperate weather. We also think of light. Turner, known as ‘the painter of light’ is famous for his suggestive depiction of light, specifically moon-light, firelight, and the play of light on water. His painting Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight is a fantastic example of this, depicting a palpable flood of moonlight breaking through the clouds, revealing the banks of the channel and illuminating the sky and the water.
Turner created a revolution in painting at the beginning of the 19th century, responding to a modern industrial landscape with a freer style and new approaches to composition. His increasingly evocative and experimental use of light was central to this, and his work was influential in the development of the Impressionist movement.
Turner also drew much influence from the French painter Claude Lorrain (c.1604-1682), who was a vital force in Turner’s artistic practice from his formative years until the end of his working life. So great was Claude’s influence that Turner stipulated in his will that his works hang alongside Claude’s in the National Gallery.
The relationship between Turner and Claude, and their shared use of light, is central to a new exhibition at the National Gallery London, opening today. Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude is the most in-depth examination of Turner’s experience of Claude’s art to date, and offers the chance to compare closely related works by both artists and discover the extent to which Turner was inspired by Claude’s mastery of light and landscape.
The exhibition examines the ways in which Turner consistently strove to confront Claude’s achievement and legacy. He had encountered Claude’s works in salerooms and in the collections of his aristocratic patrons, and applied what he had learned to the British countryside, producing views of the Thames valley that transform it into an idyllic pastoral scene reminiscent of the Roman Campagna.
The show is a fantastic opportunity to see the artwork of these two masters side by side, just as Turner would have wished. If you aren’t able to make it to London for the exhibition (it won’t travel, unfortunately), you will still have access to the beautiful accompanying catalogue, Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude, which will be available in the US in a few weeks.