I wanted to look at some of the contemporary watercolorists to give an idea of where landscape painting was at the time that Turner began to change it radically, how he moved away from this precise way of working, disconcerting a good number of his early collectors. What he did initially was to begin working more loosely, as well as begin leaving out bits of information so that the viewer was forced to fill in with his own imagination what wasn’t there.

This was an early hint of how he was to radically shift painting in his time. If we follow the trajectory of his entire career he becomes more and more fascinated with the effect of light disintegrating form, and his work eventually approaches complete abstraction. The abstract sublime, as it’s sometimes referred to. He used Lorraine to launch himself toward this way of seeing, understanding the illusion of deep atmospheric space that Claude achieved. As one writer said (can’t recall at the moment), “Sunlight viewed through a haze” could have been the title of half of his paintings.

We can get to looking at specific paintings later.

I’m trying not to run ahead too fast.
Here are some of the watercolorists of the generation mentioned on the handprint site, brilliant watercolorists all:

Paul Sandby:

Thomas Girtin:

Michael Rooker:

Francis Towne:

John Sell Cotman:

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I'm an artist.
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2 Responses to

  1. Steve says:

    “…light disintegrating form…” is an astounding description of Turner’s work, and I think it may be one of the basic truths of all painting. Form & color found by light; form and color lost by light. At least it feels central to my own way of painting and drawing. Maybe light is like love, lost and found in life. Can it be more distilled ? In any case, it’s what drew me to Turner long ago , when I was a young man on the verge of ‘maybe’ becoming a painter. Hard-edged drawing and painting never appealed to me personally ( still doesn’t ). I have always loved the form emerging difusly out of the dark. I don’t care what it’s called, ‘sfumato’…’chiaroscuro’…’lost & found’…or “sunlight viewed through a haze.” It is the most primal part of painting for me, more important even than color. But to combine that light-from-shadow with color is truly sublime. Turner did that . His seascapes are the most famous examples, but for me the Pentworth paintings of dark high-ceilinged rooms flooded with daylight through tall narrow windows sing more deeply to my spirit.
    And I like that the word “sublime” is often used when describing Turner’s work, sublime in its root meaning, to sublimate one thing for another. I feel that Turner left out academic realism, and put in its place an almost magical world full of breathless beauty. And that may be the difference between him and so many contemporary artists who think they can take away naturalism without putting anything in its place. Picasso obliterated centuries of theory and thought, but he also created a new way of seeing.

  2. trueoutsider says:

    Yes. Turner hit me at a very young age. I was in high school when I first became mesmerized by his paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It was also the first time I notice lead white paint. I didn’t know how he got the paint to do that. I thought it was some kind of strange medium. This was back in the early 1970s. It was much later, when I actually began grinding my own white lead pigment into oil that I recognized that the strange paint standing up in the skies was white lead pigment ground in oil.

    Turner invented a new way of seeing, just as Picasso did. It’s happened rarely in Western painting. It’s surprising to me how few painters actually realize Turner’s revolutionary importance. Right alongside Goya’s. Constable also gets his due. Blake is in there with his mystical visions. Artists have always had visions. That’s all they have. They have to find some form to convey the visions and it’s a seemingly impossible task that is only accomplished in the deepest solitude. The rest is social painting. Painting to console social norms. Just what you’ve called it, academic realism or classical realism. But there’s also the contemporary art academicism. Post-Modernism so called, which generally means cynically plagiarizing former artistic “styles”. Novelty art. Fashion art. Consumer art.

    How do painters avoid this nowadays?

    Marcel Duchamp ruminated on this in 1961. Quoting from “Where Do We Go From Here?”:

    “In conclusion, I hope that this mediocrity, conditioned by the many factors foreign to art per se will this time bring a revolution on the ascetic level, of which only a few initiates will develop on the fringe of a world blinded by economic fireworks. The great artist of tomorrow will go underground.”

    A revolution on the ascetic level… a world blinded by economic fireworks. Those economic fireworks have set the world ablaze at this point.

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