It may be the anticlimax after one of the most hyped art exhibitions in British history, but a new show at London’s National Gallery exploring J.M.W. Turner’s debt to French painter Claude Lorrain has left some critics cold.
“Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude” follows hard on the heels of the gallery’s record-breaking “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan,” which was always going to be a hard act to follow.
The Renaissance master had members of the public queuing around the block to catch a glimpse of one of the largest ever collections of Leonardo’s paintings. In the end, more than 320,000 people filed past the treasured works.
Now the National Gallery is focusing on the relationship between Turner, a hugely popular 19th century British artist whose works feature prominently in public collections, and 17th-century landscape painter Claude Lorrain, often known as Claude.
It narrows in on Claude’s depiction of light on canvas which clearly found its way into the works of Turner from early on.
So great was his debt to Claude that Turner left two canvases to the National Gallery – “Dido Building Carthage” and “Sun rising through Vapour: Fishermen cleaning and selling Fish” on condition they were hung between two specific Claude works.
The links between the two artists can be traced back at least to 1799, when Turner encountered two works by Claude at the London home of William Beckford – before public galleries were established, private collectors were vital for providing artists access to old masters.
Claude is best known for idealized classical scenes where figures are dwarfed by towering natural and architectural surroundings touched by light that often emanates from the center of the canvas.
Turner produced works that bore clear similarities – “Crossing the Brook” of 1815, for example, presents an idyllic view of the Tamar Valley in Devon, England.
Curators of the show argued that he fell back on Claude’s lyrical compositions even when portraying the changing industrial landscape of Britain in the 1820s and 1830s, as roads, railways and ports were developing rapidly. Some reviews took issue with the argument, criticizing organizers for stressing the links between the two artists and not exploring their differences.
“Crucial though Turner’s borrowings from Claude were at the beginning of his career, the further he moved away from Claude’s influence the greater his work became,” wrote Richard Dorment in the Telegraph newspaper in a two-out-of-five star review.
Citing the example of Turner’s “Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Night” of 1835, while the receding perspective and central light source recall Claude, the drama of the black hulks of the coal ships and soot rising into the sky are radically different.
“After seeing the exhibition, I found myself writing a single word in my notebook, but that word happens to be the kiss of death for any exhibition,” Dorment concluded. “‘Why?’”
Adrian Searle of the Guardian also questioned the wisdom of the Turner exhibition, particularly so soon after the critically acclaimed Turner and the Masters show at Tate Britain in 2009.
He also pointed out that Turner and the Elements is still open in Margate.
“Quite why the National Gallery is bringing together the British landscape painter with the 17th-century French classical landscapist, I can only wonder,” Searle said.
“Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude“ is up at London’s National Gallery until June 5.