The conundrum of J.M.W. Turner is that while he was as celebrated in his own day as he is in ours, each age has acclaimed him for quite different reasons. In the early 19th century, he was lauded as the heir and equal to some of art's great names, with his feet anchored in the past. The contemporary view of him is of an artist who emerged from the Romantic maelstrom as a proto-Modern, with a gaze fixed firmly on the future. So how to tell which view — Turner the ancient or the modern — is right? After all, as the man himself commented, art is "a rummy business".
Turner and the Masters, the exhibition opening this month at Tate Britain, suggests that both viewpoints can be reconciled by following a key strand of his career: his competition with the Old Masters. Such comparisons can leave the featured artist with a diminished rather than an enhanced reputation. Picasso and the Masters, a similar recent exercise, left the Spaniard looking rather feeble against those painters (Velazquez, Goya, etc) he tried to emulate. Turner's claims, however, are more ironclad.
Indeed, if there is common ground between Turner and Picasso, it is in their self-confidence. Picasso may have been art's ultimate turkey cock but Turner was no slouch: "I am the real lion," he proclaimed. "I am the great lion of the day." Turner's bravado was, however, tempered by his training. At the Royal Academy schools, which he joined in 1789 at the age of 14, the example of the past was paramount. Under Joshua Reynolds students were told: "Study the works of the great masters, for ever...consider them as models which you are to imitate, and at the same time as rivals with whom you are to contend." While Picasso cut straight to the contention, Turner learned his imitation first.
He was helped in this by the huge influx of top-quality pictures that entered the country as a result of the French Revolution. For the first time, native artists were no longer restricted for their exemplars to Grand Tour souvenirs in country houses but could see Titians, Rembrandts, Poussins, Murillos and others in London's salerooms as entire French collections were put on the market. Because of the Revolutionary wars, Britons couldn't travel to Europe but here was the cream of European art coming to Britain. The influx put Turner on his mettle.
Although he was excited by the Italian Renaissance paintings he saw, his two great inspirations and rivalries were with the French and the Dutch — in particular with Poussin's and especially Claude Lorrain's ethereal classical landscapes and with the views of Willem van de Velde, Jacob van Ruisdael and Albert Cuyp. Figurative painting was never his strong point but his favoured models were, like him, nature painters. What they showed, however, was not a slavish imitation of nature but what might be termed naturalism — plus: a poetic and, in Claude's case, an ennobling version of land and seascapes. In them, Turner found new effects of light and shade, compositions and new ways of making art out of base nature.