Turner – the painter of light – is the best-loved English Romantic artist
The text below is the excerpt of the book The Life and Masterworks of J.M.W. Turner (ISBN: 9781783107346), written by Eric Shanes, published by Parkstone International.
We gaze across a vast lake surrounded by huge, gleaming mountains. In the distance a heavy storm has moved off, leaving in its wake an atmosphere brimming with moisture and a world beginning to steam in the brilliant dawn sunshine. Not far away a group of travellers which has been drenched by the storm while out on the waters is alighting from a small ferry boat, their belongings and cargo strewn across the beach. On the right a girl sniffles into a handkerchief, possibly crying over the spilt milk that lies before her but more probably because her recent, chillingly damp experience has given her a head cold. Further off more boats approach, while near the very tip of the headland in the far distance to the right can just be made out the chapel first created in 1388 and rebuilt in 1638 that was dedicated to the memory of the Swiss fighter for liberty, William Tell.
Such is the immediacy of the image that one might be forgiven for thinking that it was made on the spot but that was certainly not the case. Instead, it was conjured forth from a very slight pencil drawing made by the lakeside, plus an amalgam of memories and observations that were not necessarily gleaned at this place. Above all it stemmed from an imagination that was powerful, passionate and prodigious. Nobody knows exactly when Joseph Mallord William Turner created Lake of Lucerne, from the landing place at Fluelen, looking towards Bauen and Tell’s chapel, Switzerland but it probably dates from around 1810, and thus some eight years after the twentyseven year old artist had visited Switzerland.
The work was developed in the medium of watercolour, a vehicle that before Turner had usually been employed far less expressively to communicate the dry facts about a place and its occupants. Because of the large size of the drawing, plus its combination of spatial breadth, intricate detail and wide tonal range, it might easily be mistaken for an oil painting. Such a misapprehension would only be intensified by the ornate gold frame that first enclosed the image and which has remained around it ever since. Turner certainly intended to mislead us in this way.
Would anyone need to be told that The Lake of Lucerne, from the landing place at Fluelen is a work of art? Does it not inherently define what constitutes such an object? After all, an image of this quality could not have been made by just anyone. Clearly it must have been formed by a uniquely endowed individual possessed of outstanding visionary powers, a high degree of insight into the appearances and behaviour of the natural world (which of course includes our own species), a total command of pictorial language, an absolute rule over the medium chosen for its creation and, not least of all, a feeling for both enormous breadth and tiny detail, the latter of which was amassed by means of an extraordinary degree of patience. In an age like our own, when cultural, social and political levelling and relativism (not to mention critical cowardice) permits anything from a urinal to an empty room, some cuttings of pubic hair or an act of self-mutilation to constitute “a work of art”, a watercolour like the Lake of Lucerne, from the landing place at Fluelen still makes it clear that a true work of art presents us with something superhuman, exceptional and magical.
Why these three things? Because any outstanding dramatic, musical, literary or visual work invariably draws upon powers far beyond our own to lift us onto a plane that is more imaginatively powerful, emotionally thrilling and intellectually stimulating than the mundane one we normally occupy. Like many of Turner’s other works, Lake of Lucerne, from the landing place at Fluelen elevates us to that level most ardently and easily.
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”. In an age of creative giants such as Beethoven, Schubert, Goethe, Byron, Keats, Delacroix et al., that was quite some compliment. Certainly it was not an overblown honour, for Turner does stand tall within such company. Moreover, his popularity has rarely diminished, even if his prices at auction did somewhat decrease between the 1920s and the 1960s.
However, since then they have more than bounced back, to the extent that today his works regularly elicit huge prices at auction (as can be witnessed with the Lake of Lucerne, from the landing place at Fluelen, which fetched almost two million pounds when sold in London in July 2005). And beyond the marketplace there are vast numbers of art lovers whose admiration for Turner only grows by leaps and bounds. They simply cannot have too much of him. In 2000-2001 the present writer organised an exhibition of many of Turner’s finest watercolours at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in order to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the painter’s death in 1851.
Almost 200,000 people flocked to the show during its eleven-week run; at peak times it could take up to four hours of patient standing in line to obtain entry. Moreover, an even more striking assertion of Turner’s popularity was provided early in 2007 when Tate Britain publicly appealed for funds to purchase the 1842 watercolour The Blue Rigi: Lake Lucerne, sunrise that is reproduced on page 226 below. Of the £4,900,000 sterling that the museum needed for the acquisition to go through, £300,000 was sought directly from the public. Within just five weeks, admirers of Turner both within and beyond British shores had sent in almost double that sum in a ringing endorsement of the need to purchase such a drawing for a major public collection. Clearly, a great many people still recognise a wonderful work of art when they see one, and feel it belongs to them, rather than to some rich private collector.
Yet this is not to say that the acute responsiveness to Turner has not been without its problems. Even in the artist’s own day there were many who could not stomach his daring. 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…
Some of the featured masterworks:
See more on Turner in our article:
Turner, Monet, Twombly: An Unlikely Trio
If you want more, explore Turner’s artworks below:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Our J.M.W. Turner Collection
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