It is over three hundred years since the great French artist Claude died, and yet he is still regarded as the prescient landscape painter of the pre-Romantic era. He and his compatriot Nicolas Poussin cornered the market in lush, Arcadian panoramas with mythological or religious themes, but the latter could be described as painting 'figures in a landscape', while Claude saw his pastoral scenes as 'landscapes with figures‘.
Indeed, when selling such a landscape, he claimed the figures were gratis. Often he would employ others to paint his heroic and idyllic figures, although on examination, he should have let go of the apprentice who painted the disproportionate pin-headed soldiers in Landscape with the Arrival of Aeneas.
Joseph Mallord William Turner was born ninety years after Claude died, and soon became infatuated with the man from Lorraine‘s work, and set about emulating his style, his composition, his subjects and even his techniques. It was not just Turner - his contemporary John Constable described Claude as “the most perfect landscape painter the world ever saw”. Praise indeed.
Turner had been earlier influenced by another British painter, Richard Wilson, who shared the young Turner‘s admiration for the Frenchman. His first homage to Claude were a pair of paintings seen at William Beckford‘s house in Grosvenor Square, Landscape with Narcissus and Echo and Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, from which he produced his own version of Narcissus and Echo, and a watercolour of Caenarvan Castle, strongly influenced by the seaport subject.
Anecdotally, Turner was found by the owner of the painting, John Julius Angerstein, in front of the Claude, weeping. When asked why he was so upset, he replied ‘Because I shall never be able to paint any thing like that picture.’ He then set about copying a number of others, including one called The Festival upon the Opening of the Vintage of Mâcon (1803), which betrays its geographical origins by being readily identifiable as the Thames at Teddington from Richmond Hill.
One of Turner‘s critics, Sir George Beaumont, stated that it ‘borrowed from Claude but all the colouring forgotten.’ When he travelled in Europe, he made copious copies of other painters including Titian and Poussin, whose Deluge he saw in the Louvre. In 1811 Turner became Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy, a post filled today by Ken Howard, another “painter of light”, and he gave a number of lectures, using his own paintings as examples. He continued to be influenced by Claude, placing the sun, or in the case of Keelmen Heaving in Coals at Night, the moon, prominent in, if not central to, the composition, with trees, buildings or ships’ masts framing the picture, but his style became looser as time went by, and along the way, he alienated the art world with his progressive, impressionistic style.
This is a studious exhibition that both contrasts and flatters the two men‘s approach to landscape, but it is Turner who emerges as the victor, in that he ‘moved on’, to become one of Britain‘s favourite sons.
Until 5 June 2012
Entrance £12 (concessions)
Photo by Don Grant. National Gallery curator Susan Foister in front of Keelmen Heaving in Coals at Night (1835)