September 21, 2009 / 2:31 PM / 10 years ago

Turner takes on old masters in new London show

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - J.M.W. Turner is widely accepted as one of Britain’s greatest painters. A new exhibition shows he was also one of its most competitive.

“Turner & The Masters” at Tate Britain in London lines the British master of light up against some of the leading names of European art including Rembrandt and Titian, and leaves the visitor to decide whether he is worthy of the comparison.

Turner invited such scrutiny by deliberately interpreting and re-working old masters, whom he not only sought to match but also to surpass.

In 1832, Turner tried to upstage his great rival John Constable at the Royal Academy exhibition.

During the last-minute “varnishing” period just prior to the show’s opening, Turner added a red buoy to his grayish seascape “Helvoetsluys,” apparently to compete directly with the colors of Constable’s adjacent “The Opening of Waterloo Bridge.”

Constable, who labored over his work for a decade, is quoted telling a friend: “He has been here and fired a gun.”

Tate unites the works for the first time in over 175 years, and brings together some 100 pictures from collections around the world for its show, which runs from September 23-January 31, 2010.

Tate Britain links Turner’s fierce ambition — he once proclaimed “I am the great lion of the day” — to his working-class roots.

His rivalry with great painters was also aided by political upheaval in continental Europe at the turn of the 19th century.

“What was new in Turner’s lifetime was that major collections came to London and were broken up, so the London art market becomes flooded with master paintings,” said co-curator Martin Myrone.

“For the first time he could see how British art shapes up against the continental tradition,” he told Reuters.


Although known for breaking with artistic tradition, and helping usher in impressionism with his bold brushwork and blurred images, Turner was also steeped in European art and preoccupied with his place in its history.

In the first room, Turner’s large seascape called “Dutch Boats in a Gale” (1801) is displayed alongside Willem van de Velde the Younger’s “A Rising Gale” (1672).

Turner was commissioned by the original work’s owner to create a companion piece, and, although clearly based on de Velde’s painting, Turner reverses the composition and the paintwork is more visible and textural.

“The nuts and bolts of art history are being explored by the viewer,” said Myrone. “What’s different about Turner is he says ‘I can paint like de Velde, but I can do it a bit better.”

Turner’s works hang alongside those of Rembrandt, Poussin, Titian and 17th century landscape master Claude Lorrain, who was particularly influential.

While Turner was confident in his ability, he did not always emerge as the winner when comparisons were made, underlining the risks involved in taking on the masters.

His “What You Will!,” exhibited in 1822, was based on French artist Jean Antoine Watteau’s “fete galante” style, but was dismissed by the critics at the time.

And when Turner executed the huge “The Battle of Trafalgar,” designed as a companion to Philip James de Loutherbourg’s similarly-sized “The Glorious First of June,” his version again was deemed inferior.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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