There’s a surprising vogue in London for exhibitions designed to make Britons look bad.
Hard on the heels of “Picasso and Modern British Art” at Tate Britain -- documenting how Pablo thought of everything first and did it better -- comes “Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude” at the National Gallery (until June 5).
Predictably, the plucky British challenger comes off worse. Though the contest isn’t catastrophic for J.M.W. Turner, it’s a victory on points for the Franco-Italian master. The exhibition demonstrates that Turner (1775-1851) spent a lot of time and energy emulating Claude Lorrain (c.1600-1682). The trouble is, it also suggests that he overdid the hero worship.
There’s a fashion for these comparisons between artists of different eras. Turner and Claude are not nearly such a hopeless mismatch as Twombly and Poussin -- shown together last year at the Dulwich Picture Gallery -- a combination that might have been the answer to the question, “Which two painters in history had the least in common?” At this show, you go away feeling that Turner was at his best when he wasn’t trying to channel Claude.
He was far from alone, however, in this painterly passion. The British have long been potty about Claude. He was born in what is now eastern France, and based throughout his professional life in Rome. His art was a blend of northern European naturalism with Italian classicism. It combined the warm south, ancient architecture and the natural world -- all ingredients of which the British were (and are) extremely fond.
Georgian aristocrats landscaped their estates to look as much as possible like Claude’s idealized version of central Italy. It’s estimated that by 1820 about half the paintings the artist produced were in British collections. A lot of them still are. One of the pleasures of the exhibition is the opportunity it gives to enjoy marvelous Claudes from Holkham Hall in Norfolk and Anglesey Abbey outside Cambridge.
It’s easy to see why Turner admired this predecessor (he called him “aerial Claude”), and just what he got from him. Claude painted not just dawn and dusk, but dozens of different kinds of sunrise and sunset: apricot evening clouds, lemon-yellow skies with blue-green shadows in the woods below plus milky morning light, serene afternoons, the full blaze of the rising Mediterranean sun. All observed with amazing, delicate accuracy.
Turner, too, was a supreme painter of light and atmosphere. You can see that most clearly in this exhibition when he isn’t imitating Claude too closely: in the wonderful watercolor “Sunrise” (1825) -- entirely in shades of lemon yellow with the paler disc of the sun in the center -- or the fine “Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Night” (1835), a cool northern vista of ships on the Tyne.
The pictures by Claude are a combination of brilliant observation of the fresh-air world outside the studio and Baroque theatricality: the framing trees and classical temples, the nymphs, shepherds and grazing flocks scattered in the foreground. That worked for him, but when Turner follows the formula the results look -- next to the originals -- stagey and over-bright.
Claude still strikes a chord. David Hockney devotes a room of his current Royal Academy exhibition to variations on a theme by the 17th-century master. Personally, I could spend all day looking at Claude’s endlessly varied landscape moods. So after this appetizer, how about giving us a proper Claude show?
“Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude” runs through June 5 at the National Gallery, which is supported by Credit Suisse Group AG. Information: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)