Friday, 4 March 2016

Titian, Turner and Inspiration

J.M.W.Turner is recognised for his exceptional use of light and his love of storms, mists, rough seas and other threatening, or mysterious, natural events. Meteorological effects fascinated him from boyhood, when he lay on his back to look at the sky [1], not allowing any intrusion from his surroundings, and then returning home to paint his impressions. Like many artists, Turner spent much of his childhood drawing and painting what he saw and this continued throughout his life. He was an enthusiastic traveller and produced many sketchbooks filled with landscapes, but he also painted figures and buildings; some real, some imaginary.

Turner's first formal training came as a teenager at the Royal Academy Schools [1], when he developed an interest in architecture and perspective, both features of his later paintings in the style of Claude Lorrain. Further influences were Aelbert Cuyp and other painters of classical landscapes, but there is no doubting Turner's originality in producing a synthesis that was very much his own. 

A less obvious influence is the work of Titian. Some of Turner's sketches based on the Venetian artist (see below) are held in the collections of Tate Britain and date from 1802, when Turner was 27 years old and was making his first visit to the Louvre in Paris. The sketches feature compositional and figure details, and during his visit to that great gallery, Turner had "his eye taken most firmly by Titian" [1] and, especially, his use of colour.

As Vasari wrote, Titian "...well deserved to be considered the most perfect imitator of nature of our times as regards colouring..." [2] Titian was among the first to paint with oils on canvas, rather than board, and the palette available to him in Venice not only allowed the portrayal of the splendid colours of clothing popular in Venice at the time, but other effects. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the altarpiece in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. This is what Hugh Honour and John Fleming wrote about this work [3]:

Titian (Tiziano Vecelli, c.1490-1576) was given his first chance to reveal the full force of his artistic energy when he was asked to paint a vast picture of the Assumption of the Virgin for the high altar of S Maria dei Frari [in 1516-1518]. Hitherto, Venetian altarpieces had been intended to be seen to best advantage from the altar steps; their figures were life-size or less and usually set within simulated architecture conceived as an extension of the church. Titian's altarpiece, the largest ever painted in Venice, with heroic-scale figures, was designed to catch the eye of anyone entering the west door of the nave, nearly 100 yards away. 

It is not only the scale of the piece that captures our attention, but the luminosity of the colour enveloping the Virgin. Turner, already impressed by the light quality in Venice, and the magical interaction of land and sea, must have liked the use of bright yellow-white and the ability of the painting to grab the attention from a distance, something that was such a feature of Turner's work. He would have appreciated Titian's showmanship, a quality that he himself enjoyed on Varnishing Days in the Royal Academy. There are many stories about Turner on these occasions, adding dramatic flourishes to some paintings, commenting on the work of other artists, and generally enjoying being one of the centres of attention. We don't know how many of the stories are true [1].

There can be no questioning Turner's genius as an artist and I am moved by many of his paintings and by his feeling for Nature. If I am correct in suggesting that Titian's palette was an influence, we can thank that Venetian Master, alongside all the other influences, for helping to make Turner so inspiring.

[1] James Hamilton (1997) Turner: A Life. London, Hodder and Stoughton.

[2] Giorgio Vasari (2005) Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (translated by Mrs Jonathan Foster). New York, Dover Publication, Inc. [Original from 1550, with a revised Second Edition in 1568]

[3] Hugh Honour and John Fleming (2005) A World History of Art (Seventh Edition). London, Laurence King.

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