Dido Building Carthage; or The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire, exhibited 1815. Oil on canvas, 155.5 x 230 cm. The National Gallery, London.

Turner: From darkness to light

It was with watercolours demonstrating exceptional qualities that Turner first attracted public attention in the early 1790s, before he had yet turned twenty. As time went on, and as he developed his abilities as an exceptional oil painter, draughtsman and printmaker as well as a watercolourist, so too appreciation of his works flourished, to the extent that by 1815, the very year in which Lake of Lucerne, from the landing place at Fluelen was first seen publicly, an anonymous writer could term the artist “The First Genius of the Day”.

Dido Building Carthage; or The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire, exhibited 1815.  Oil on canvas, 155.5 x 230 cm. The National Gallery, London.
Dido Building Carthage; or The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire, exhibited 1815. Oil on canvas, 155.5 x 230 cm. The National Gallery, London.

However, during the 1800s and 1810s he was severely criticised for his use of white, so much so that both he and other painters who followed directly in his footsteps were dubbed “the white painters”. Moreover, from the 1820s onwards the artist’s predilection for yellow led to many jokes and snide remarks being made in the newspapers about his pictures. When Turner combined intense yellows with fierce reds, blues and greens, journalistic comparisons abounded between his paintings and food, particularly scrambled eggs and salads. Then there was Turner’s dissolution of form within areas of intense light (which, in his late works, often took over entire images). Many members of a public that was becoming increasingly habituated to the intense verisimilitude of Pre-Raphaelite painting and/or Victorian bourgeois realism could not comprehend what was going on in a late-Turner canvas or watercolour. Even collectors who had previously lined up to purchase the latter kind of works found many of the artist’s late Swiss drawings difficult to understand and wouldn’t buy them.

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Fall of the Clyde, c.1845. Oil on canvas, 89 x 119.5 cm. Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool.

From darkness to light: perhaps no painter in the history of western art evolved over a greater visual span than Turner. If we compare one of his earliest exhibited masterworks, such as the fairly low-keyed St Anselm’s Chapel, with part of Thomas-à-Becket’s Crown, Canterbury Cathedral of 1794, with a brilliantly-keyed picture dating from the 1840s, such as Fall of the Clyde, it seems hard to credit that the two images stemmed from the same hand, so vastly do they differ in appearance. Yet this apparent disjunction can easily obscure the profound continuity that underpins Turner’s art, just as the dazzling colour, high tonality and loose forms of the late images can lead to the belief that the painter shared the aims of the French Impressionists or even that he wanted to be some kind of abstractionist, both of which notions are untrue. Instead, that continuity demonstrates how single-mindedly Turner pursued his early goals, and how magnificently he finally attained them.

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