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J.M.W Turner: Painting Set Free

Venice & The Alps

Turner’s insatiable appetite for history and dramatic scenery drew him time and again to continental Europe. He travelled light and usually alone, often walking many miles. He made few concessions to his age or failing health. While travelling, Turner drew constantly in his sketchbooks, leading his colleagues to remark on his diligence. One artist, idling with a cigar in a gondola in Venice one evening, said he felt ashamed to see Turner “hard at work.” Another watched him sketching “continuously and rapidly” in a tiny book while aboard a steamship on Lake Constance near the Alps. Turner was attracted not only to spectacular sites like ancient ruins, medieval castles, jagged mountain peaks and meandering rivers, but also to local customs, culture and atmospheric effects of weather and light.

The Blue Rigi, Sunrise

The Blue Rigi, Sunrise, 1842, Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851, Purchased with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation and including generous support from David and Susan Gradel, and from other members of the public through the Save the Blue Rigi appeal), Tate Members and other donors 2007. Photography © Tate, London 2015

In his 60s, Turner rediscovered with a fresh perspective places he had marvelled at in his youth: the Alps and Switzerland. He also visited northern Europe, and was particularly drawn to the Rhine, Meuse and Mosel rivers. His experiences, recorded in many thousands of sketches and colour studies, fuelled some of his greatest work in oil and watercolour.

Turner first depicted the Rigi, a mountain on Lake Lucerne, on an early trip to Switzerland in 1802. In his later years, the artist returned to the subject again and again. Here the looming, powerful form of the Rigi is silhouetted against an array of skies, from sunrise to sunset. Turner’s study of changing atmospheric effects on the same motif inspired French impressionists like Claude Monet.

The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella from the Steps of the Europa

The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of the Europa, Exhibited 1842, Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851, Presented by Robert Vernon 1847. Photography © Tate, London 2015

Although Turner visited Venice only three times, his many colour studies and paintings of the city are among his most potent works. Although sometimes criticized for their intense colours and questionable accuracy, Turner’s Venetian pictures sold better than many of his other late works, and were much admired by later artists such as Claude Monet.

Situated near the mouth of the Grand Canal in Venice, the Hotel Europa provided Turner with a good location for sketching the city’s rooftops as well as views like this, looking across to the Dogana (Customs House) and beyond, to a gleaming, ethereal city shrouded in fog. This painting may symbolize the trading power of Venice in its prime: the pots in the foreground are an example of imported luxury goods.

Organised by Tate Britain in association with the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the J. Paul Getty Museum

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