TURNER: TRADITION AND REVOLUTION
Turner's place in British art, as in the development of Romantic landscape, cannot be overstated. Precocious in youth, challenging and surpassing the artists of his time, elected a member of the Royal Academy at the earliest possible moment, he went on to transform his style so radically as to provide an example for several future generations of artists. His development was, however, based on a firm appreciation of the art of his predecessors, and it was this grounding in the work of the Old Masters that sustained and gave structure to even his most revolutionary work for the rest of his career.
In the late 1780s Turner developed his landscape style from that of Richard Wilson. In the early years of the nineteenth century he emulated the two great masters of seventeenth century landscape, Poussin and Claude, and by the 1830s when he exhibited his first oil paintings of Venice, he had widenened the field of celebrated masters to be challenged in his own work. In 1831 he laid claim to the inheritance of Watteau in his Watteau Study by Fresnoy's Rules (Tate Britain, London) and in 1833 placed himself in the line of the great Dutch marine tradition with Van Goyen, looking out for a subject (Frick Collection, New York). That same year, 1833, he exhibited his first two Venetian subjects. With Bridge of Sighs, Ducal Palace (now lost) and Custom House, Venice: Canaletti painting (Tate Britain, London), he immediately, and deliberately, established his position as the descendant of his great Venetian precursor.
In this way Turner claimed his place in the mainstream of European painting. At the same time his own work was not only becoming established as an influence in Britain but soon became an example to leading foreign artists who came to London to admire his paintings and drawings. That influence, and the fruition of Turner's intent, was vividly demonstrated in the exhibition Turner Whistler Monet shown in Toronto, Paris and London in 2004-5. In this it was made clear that whatever each artist's fundamental purpose may have been, Turner was already regarded in the 1860s and 1870s as an artist of international importance by two of the leading foreign painters of the day.
In fact Turner's example continued to be highly important for later European and American artists. Paul Signac, for example, came to London in 1898 and again in 1909 largely to see Turner's work (and was, incidentally, in Venice in 1908, the year of Monet's first and only visit), and John Gage has gone so far as to describe him as 'the bridge between Turner and the modern period' (Colour in Turner, London, 1969, pp. 193-4). Even more recently, Mark Rothko, just before his death in 1970, gave nine important paintings to the Tate Gallery with the aim for them to be hung in association with so many of Turner's masterpieces (R. Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London, 1981, p. 660).
TURNER AND VENICE BY ANDREW WILTON
Venice occupies a uniquely important position in the repertory of Turner's subject matter. He was an avid collector of places: from his teens he had travelled wide-eyed to remote regions of England, Wales and Scotland, and, as soon as political conditions allowed, to the Continent of Europe. As early as 1802 he journeyed over the Alps as far as the Val d'Aosta, giving himself a token glimpse of the Mediterranean lands. For all art-loving northerners, Italy was haunted by the ghosts of the ancient world and of the Renaissance. As late as the eighteenth century, Venice enjoyed a special status for the innumerable British travellers making the Grand Tour: it was a city of unreal beauty, its canals and gleaming, marble-clad palazzi forming a setting for spectacular carnivals and balls, at which visiting dignitaries were entertained in sumptuous style. In Rome the tourists found political and religious debate; in Florence they admired the civilization of the Medici; in Venice, they could holiday while contemplating the august history of a great commercial metropolis, which had gathered to itself the riches of the world, and especially of the orient. For many, it was the most exotic place encompassed by their travels.
Long before he went there, Turner was acutely conscious of what a journey to Italy meant. Once the Napoleonic Wars were over and travel abroad was again a possibility, he began to study guide books, made thumbnail sketches from prints showing the most celebrated Italian sites, and even completed a set of exquisite small watercolours showing many famous places rendered in vivid detail from his imagination - an imagination that had already produced paintings of Italy more true to its spirit, in the opinion of Sir Thomas Lawrence, than those of Claude Lorraine himself. These watercolours were executed on commission, using the pencil drawings of a traveller, James Hakewill, as starting-point for a realisation, as it were, of Turner's enraptured anticipation of Italy. One of the subjects was a view on the Grand Canal in Venice, for which he must have been reliant on the information supplied not only by Hakewill but by Canaletto, whose views of the city were easily seen in England, having been keenly collected by the Grand Tourists. Despite all these enthusiastic expectations, however, Turner was unable to cross the Alps and tour Italy in person until the early autumn of 1819, and then he stayed only a few days in Venice before hurrying on south to Florence, Rome and Naples.
He followed his usual practice in making numerous pencil sketches of the place, its buildings, its people: the kinds of details that any landscape artist needs to cement his perception of the physical facts of a location. In addition, he made four watercolour studies, in the Como and Venice book (TB CLXXXI), which magically evoke the open spaces of the Bacino di San Marco and the Lagoon, and prophetically summarise the preoccupations of the paintings of Venice that he was to make twenty or more years later.
For there is a sense in which Turner always saw Venice in terms of watercolour. It is a city built on water, and its scenery largely consists of water: it was natural for a lifelong watercolourist, as Turner was, to conceive his depictions of the place in that medium. Two finished watercolours resulted directly from his experiences on the 1819 trip, and when he returned to visit the city for the last time in 1840 he made many wonderful watercolour studies in a series of soft-covered sketchbooks. There is, then, an irony in the fact that he never executed a finished watercolour of Venice in his later years. One of the great late 'Swiss' watercolours, the Constance of 1842 (York City Art Gallery), a panorama of coolly reflective water, gives us some idea of what such a work might have been like; but he never chose to carry out on the larger scale, and with greater technical refinement, any of the dozens of visions that he captured in colour in his sketchbook studies. Instead, he transferred his watercolour intentions directly on to canvas and realised them in oil, but painting them as though they were watercolours.
And so the majestic sequence of his late Venetian oil paintings is also, paradoxically, a tribute to the medium of watercolour. For it is in these works more than anywhere else that he achieves a final synthesis of the two media: the intensity and rhetorical force of oil is combined with the luminosity and freshness of watercolour in realising subject matter that demands the qualities of both.
He began by laying in his design with an almost wholly white ground, the principal shapes merely suggested by subtle modifications of tone. Tate Britain is lucky enough to possess, in the Turner Bequest, some examples of these lay-ins, in which the purpose of the work is already clear - even down to the shadowy presence of crowds of festive figures - but which await almost all specific detail. The lay-ins are the equivalent of the blank white sheets on which he would paint his watercolours; and just as he proceeded with the watercolours by washing in evanescent sweeps of colour, and touching in figures, boats and architectural details with a brush, as we are told, of only one hair, so onto the white lay-in of the canvas he would add a vibrant cerulean blue for sky or a sonorous and transparent glass-green for water, and then delicately pick out his narratives of gondoliers, merchants, tourists and worshippers under finely moulded porticos and façades, with a correspondingly fine brush. It has been noted that whenever possible he employed identical pigments in either medium, a clear indication that he regarded them as two equally valid vehicles for his purposes.
More remarkable still is the fact, well attested by several of his colleagues at the Academy, that all this work, not merely the finishing but the very painting of the picture, took place on the wall of the exhibition, after Turner had sent in his white lay-in, ready framed. He would position himself close to the surface and paint away sometimes for an entire day. On one occasion in the 1830s a friend noted that 'he never ceased to work, or even once looked or turned from the wall on which his picture hung... A small box of colours, a very few small brushes, and a vial or two, were at his feet, very inconveniently placed; but his short figure, stooping, enabled him to reach what he wanted very readily. Presently the work was finished: Turner gathered his tools together, put them into and shut up the box, and then, with his face still turned to the wall, and at the same distance from it, went sidelong off, without speaking a word to anybody'. The same witness says that he 'worked almost entirely with his palette knife'. The picture in question was not a Venetian subject, but we may be sure that his procedure was more or less similar in all these late works: the 'transformation scenes' at the Academy varnishing days became legendary. There was a widely-felt sense that Turner was a sorcerer, summoning into existence a world of dreams so vivid that they were more persuasive than any reality.
Andrew Wilton was Keeper of British Art at Tate and was founding Curator of the Turner Collection at the Clore Gallery. He has written and lectured extensively on Turner and on British Art of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
TURNER'S VENETIAN OIL PAINTINGS BY MARTIN BUTLIN, C.B.E., F.B.A.
Turner first exhibited Venetian subjects at the Royal Academy in 1833. This did not, however, represent his first encounter with La Serenissima. He had visited the city for the first time in 1819, though the only oil painting he produced as a result was the vast, unfinished Rialto (Tate Britain, London), begun, it seems, as a companion to his England: Richmond Hill of 1819 and Rome from the Vatican of 1820 (both Tate Britain, London). The composition of the former, dominated by the great arch of the bridge, would have entirely overshadowed its companions in grandeur and scale.
The perhaps surprising absence of Venetian exhibits between 1819 and 1833 is at least in part explained by the fact that when Turner returned to Italy in 1828 he missed out Venice altogether, travelling straight to Rome. When he did return to Venice in 1833 it was only after the exhibition of Venetian subjects at the Royal Academy earlier that summer, a decision in part resulting from the 'provocation' of the success of Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-8) in the 1820s. If that had been highlighted by the reception of Bonington's posthumous sale of 1829, it was perhaps exacerbated by the potential rivalry of his friend and follower, William Clarkson Stanfield (1793-1867) who also showed a Venetian picture in the 1833 exhibition. According to the Morning Standard of 6 June 1833, Turner painted his contributions 'it is said in two or three days, on hearing that Mr. Stanfield was employed on a similar subject and not in the way of rivalry, of course, for he is the last to admit to anything of the kind, but generously, we will suppose, to give him a lesson in atmosphere and poetry'. It was agreed by the critics that Turner won the contest, having, as we have seen, called in Canaletto in his support. The picture was bought at the exhibition by Robert Vernon.
This success seems to have focused Turner on Venice, as for the rest of the 1830s he continued, albeit irregularly, to exhibit Venetian subjects. They remained, however, a relatively small proportion of his output, and one might conclude that he had not at that point become fully engrossed by the subject matter. His single Venetian picture of 1834, Venice (National Gallery of Art, Washington), was actually a commission from Henry McConnell for whom Turner painted a companion shown the following year, Keelman Heaving in Coals by Night (National Gallery of Art, Washington); this contrasted the bustling activity of industrial England with the indolence of decadent Venice. Turner's other Venetian exhibits of the 1830s seem to have been one-off works with no intended companions (for Turner's paired works see M. Butlin, 'Companion Works', The Oxford Companion to J.M.W. Turner, Oxford 2001, pp.54-56, and Ian Warrell, Turner and Venice, London, 2003, pp. 22-23, 239-242).
In 1840 he exhibited another two Venetian works before setting out for his third and last visit, and it would seem that on this last excursion Turner appreciated the full potential of Venice and its glittering lagoon. He continued to exhibit Venetian paintings up to 1846 with much more persistence than before, nineteen of his forty-four exhibits of these years being views of the city. In addition there are five unfinished oils of Venetian subjects dating from those years. His interest was perhaps most remarkably manifested in his exhibition in 1845 of two pairs of compositions that together covered the four times of day: Evening; and Morning; and Noon and Sunset (all Tate Britain, London).
By this time Turner's position within the Royal Academy was such that he had almost total control over where his pictures were hung. In particular he could insist on placing any pair of works together (the numbering system of the exhibits, crowded frame to frame and floor to ceiling, meant that a picture's number could be as much as forty-five away from its companion). Occasionally, however, a patron's commission could result in a pair of works being exhibited a year apart, as in the case of the two works painted for McConnell. The present painting, Giudecca, La Donna della Salute and San Giorgio of 1841, and Campo Santo, Venice of 1842 (Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, see fig. 7), seems to be another such example.
As the decade wore on, Turner's Venetian pictures became both vaguer in their topography and depicted the less well-known features of the city - the Giudecca rather than the Grand Canal, the lagoon rather than the Doge's Palace; as Turner's genius became drawn to light and atmosphere, his handling of paint became ever more impressionistic and experimental. It has been suggested that Turner's late Venetian pictures, small in size, less expensive and particularly attractive in subject-matter, represented an appeal to popular taste. But sales of Venetian subjects dropped off, while criticism, relatively good as compared with that of his other subjects in the early 1840s, became more negative. Turner's extraordinary visionary talent had advanced too far ahead for his contemporaries.
His obvious fascination with Venice, on all three of his short visits, reflected in the vast number of drawings and watercolours he produced there and as well as in the quality of his oils, demonstrates a joy in the city's unique combination of light, shimmering stone and water. As has been written of the whole series of twenty-four Venetian oil paintings, 1833-1846, 'Taken together, these can be seen as an indication of his enduring fascination with the city where impressions are barely perceived before being surrendered to time' (I.Warrell in K.Lochnan, ed., Turner Whistler Monet, London, 2004, p. 218).
TURNER'S GIUDECCA, LA DONNA DELLA SALUTE AND SAN GIORGIO
This painting was one of three Venetian subjects, all views in or from the Giudecca canal, exhibited by Turner at the Royal Academy in 1841; he also showed three further pictures. One of the three Venetian paintings was the Depositing of John Bellini's Three Pictures in la Chiesa Redentore, Venice (private collection), the sole exception among his exhibited Venetian subjects from 1840 onwards in its larger size, 29 x 45½ in. (73.6 x 115.5 cm). The Giudecca, like the third exhibited Ducal Palace, with Part of San Giorgio, Venice (Dudley Peter Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Ohio; fig. 2) followed Turner's standard for his later Venetian subjects, two feet by three feet (approximately 63.5 x 92 cm). This work shows the view from nearer to the eastern end of the Giudecca than that of the present picture, with San Giorgio on the right and the Doge's Palace in the centre; in the present picture, San Giorgio is in the centre with the Madonna della Salute on the left and the church of the Zitelle on the right. On the extreme right, Turner has included one of the towers of the Redentore which in reality can only be seen if the façade of the church is also visible. The Zitelle is also shown inaccurately (as also in the Bellini picture); in reality the dome is immediately behind the façade with its two towers, with no intervening nave. Moreover, the distant campanile of St. Marks is so juxtaposed with the domes of the Madonna della Salute as to appear to be part of the same complex (fig. 3).
Comparisons may be made with a sketch of the same view, done, at least as far as the pencil drawing is concerned, on the spot in 1840 (the watercolour was probably added back at the Hotel Europa where Turner was staying). One of his flexible roll sketchbooks (Tate Britain, T.B.CCCXV, 11; fig. 4) shows that these variations occurred as a result of Turner trimming the very wide field of the drawing when he came to paint the subject in oils. It also suggests that, rather than using the sketch directly when he came to paint the oil, Turner had, as it were, fixed the subject in his mind in the very process of drawing and had no need to have recourse to it a year later back in London. Nor can Turner have looked again at another watercolour done in Venice in 1840, that showing San Giorgio Maggiore and the Zitelle from the Giudecca canal (Tate Britain, T.B.CCCXVI, 40; fig. 5) in which the Zitelle is drawn correctly. A further drawing from that same sketchbook that may have helped to fix the scene in Turner's mind is On the Giudecca Canal beside the Redentore, looking towards San Giorgio Maggiore (Tate Britain, T.B.CCCXVI, 4; fig. 6).
At first sight the two foot by three foot Venetian pictures exhibited in 1841 would seem to make good companions; their respective exhibition numbers, 53 and 66, would place them close to each other on the Academy wall. The compositions echo each other, with a domed structure on opposed sides and a more distant focus on another important building in the centre (see Warrell, op. cit., figs. 197 and 198). However, J.W. Archer, whose 'Reminiscences' were published in Once a Week, 1 February 1862 (reprinted Turner Studies, I, no. 1, Summer 1981, p. 34), states that the Oberlin picture was 'painted expressly for Chantrey', Turner's friend and fellow Royal Academician Sir Francis Chantrey, who died later the same year. An undated letter from Turner to a Mr. Collard. (J. Gage, ed., The Collected Correspondence of J.M.W. Turner, Oxford, 1980, p. 184) referring to the availability of the Venetian pictures in the 1841 exhibition makes it clear that the Oberlin picture was already sold, unlike the other two which were priced at 250 guineas for the smaller and 350 guineas for the larger work. The account by the not altogether reliable Walter Thornbury that Chantrey bought his picture 'unseen, on the recommendation of a fellow Academician' (op. cit, 1862, I, pp.390-1; 1877, op.cit., p. 179) seems therefore unlikely.
More likely is the possibility that Elhanan Bicknell, having bought the Giudecca at the Academy in 1841, actually commissioned a companion which was then shown in 1842, Campo Santo, Venice (Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio; fig. 7). At the time of the Bicknell sale at Christie's on 25 April 1863 and five following days, both the sale catalogue and The Times for 27 April stated that the Giudecca and Campo Santo pictures were commissioned by Bicknell; Dr. Waagen (loc. cit.) also saw them as companions. Various other pictures of 1842 and 1843 have been suggested as companions to Campo Santo (see J. Gage in exhibition catalogue, Paris, Petit Palais, La Peinture Romantique Anglaise et les Preraphaelites, 1972, no. 273, where he suggests Sun of Venice, 1843 (London, Tate Britain), and C. Mullen, exhibition catalogue, Munich, Haus der Kunst, Zwei Jahrhunderte Englische Malerei, 1979-80, no. 260, and J.Gage, exhibition catalogue, J.M.W. Turner, Paris, Grand Palais, 1983-4, no. 67, suggesting The Dogana, San Giorgio, Citella, from the steps of the Europa, 1842 in the Tate Britain, London). However, Bicknell's ownership and the evidence of the catalogue of his sale, supports Campo Santo. Both pictures show a wide panoramic view although in the Toledo picture there is much less emphasis on architecture, and the middle distance is dominated by the twin-sailed craft, of which the sails 'Juxtaposed with the (new) cemetery seem like an angel's wings, or the soul of a dead person come to haunt the Lagoon' (L. Stainton, Turner's Venice, London, 1985, p. 34). An alternative possibility is that Turner, having exhibited Giudecca and Ducal Palace as companions in 1841, was led, by the sale of each picture to a different patron, to paint a new companion to Giudecca for Bicknell, the Campo Santo exhibited in 1842.
Contemporary reviews are no help on the question of which pictures were companions as they either treat all three Venetian pictures shown in 1841 as a group, or the two smaller ones bought by Chantrey and Bicknell as a pair, which were described by the Literary Gazette for 8 May, as 'two beautiful masterpieces'. The Athenaeum for 5 June found them: 'so much less extravagant than his late [i.e. recent] Turner-isms', continuing 'In these Venetian pictures, it would be hard to exceed the clearness of air and water - the latter taking every passing reflection with a pellucid softness beyond the reach of meaner pencils. The architecture, too, is more carefully made out than has lately been the case with Mr Turner, and both pictures are kept alive by groups of southern figures, which, seen from a certain remoteness, give a beauty and not a blemish to the scenes they animate'. The Art Union for 15 May praised both pictures as 'A glorious example of colour, leaving, as usual, much to the fancy of the spectator; and absolutely extorting applause.'
Elhanan Bicknell (1788-1861) was an important purchaser of Turner's works from 1838 until 1854, buying in all twelve oil paintings and eighteen watercolours. The son of a Unitarian school master, Bicknell was offered a partnership in his uncle's refinery of whale-produced spermacci; this led to a substantial financial interest in the Pacific whaling industry. He exercised his own artistic taste, buying at auction or directly from artists rather than from dealers. Returning from a visit to Italy to see works by the Old Masters, he announced that he had seen nothing he would 'give a damn for'. His taste in English art was equally personal: Gainsborough but not Reynolds, and no Constables despite being related to Constable's wife Maria Bicknell. His son married David Roberts's daughter, and other artists he collected included Clarkson Stanfield, William Collins, Callcott, Copley Fielding and Landseer. Bicknell bought his first seven watercolours by Turner in 1838; later acquisitions included the Blue Rigi (private collection). The Giudecca, 1841, was his first Turner oil painting, followed by Campo Santo in 1842. In 1844 he bought eight Turner oils, six on a single day, varying in date from 1810 to the mid 1830s. He went on to buy two early oil paintings in 1851 and four more watercolours in 1854, after Turner's death. At the sale of Bicknell's collection at Christie's in 1863, the Star for 28 April described the collection as one that 'would have done no discredit to a LORENZO the MAGNIFICENT'. (For Bicknell and his collection see Bicknell and Guiterman, op. cit., p. 34-4).
Sir Donald Currie (1825-1909), who bought Giudecca in 1897, was one of the most important later collectors of Turner's works, owning thirteen oil paintings and over fifty watercolours. Coincidentally, he was also involved in maritime affairs, being chairman of the Union Castle Line (see Evelyn Joll in Joll, Butlin and Hermann, op. cit., p. 69).
In the second edition of Butlin and Joll (loc. cit.), this picture was listed as in the collection of William Wood Prince and the Art Institute of Chicago. However, the painting was in fact on loan to the Art Institute, to whom William Wood Prince subsequently gave a partial share in the picture. The picture was later sold through Agnew's to the present vendor.
As Ian Warrell has written, 'Turner's light-filled images of Venice represent one of the most important strands of his mature work. No other city, with the possible exception of Rome, consistently captivated his imagination over such a long period' (op. cit., p. 14). Giudecca, La Donna della Salute and San Giorgio is one of the peaks of Turner's achievement in this field. Exhibited a year after the artist first adopted a new, smaller and more intimate format for his Venetian oils (clearly, in his opinion, especially suitable for such subjects) it shows the artist at the height of his powers.
Martin Butlin was Keeper of the historic British Collection at the Tate Gallery from 1960 until 1989. Together with Evelyn Joll he published the definitive catalogue of Turner's oil paintings, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner (London, 1977, revised edition 1981).