« ZurückWeiter »
invented ? Is it the real beauties of nature that he puts before us, or is he great for adding
The consecration and the poet's dream ? Again there is this further question to be asked with regard to Turner's greatness. The first thing that will strike every one, on looking round this room, is the contrast between the dark and heavy pictures on the wall to the left and the bright and aerial pictures opposite. Is Turner great for the former, or the latter? In his own day the common opinion was to divide his work into two portionsone sane, the other insane,—and to acknowledge his greatness in his canvases in drab, but to deny it to those in scarlet and gold. The object of the following remarks is to provide some clue to the perplexities which thus beset the visitor to the Turner Gallery.
In the first place, Turner's greatness consists in this: that he stands at the head of the naturalistic school of landscape. We have seen how, with the old masters of Italy, landscape was either treated in a purely conventional way, or given an entirely subordinate importance. The Giottesque painters who first sought to give some resemblance to nature in their backgrounds painted on this recipe: “The sky is always pure blue, paler at the horizon, and with a few streaky white clouds in it; the ground is green, even to the extreme distance, with brown rocks projecting from it; water is blue streaked with white. The trees are nearly always composed of clusters of their proper leaves relieved on a black or dark ground.” In the next periods, “distant objects were more or less invested with a blue colour ; and trees were no longer painted with a black ground, but with a rich dark brown or deep green. But rocks and water were as imperfect as ever, and the forms of rocks in Leonardo's Vierge aux Rochers' (I. 1093, p. 25) are no better than those on a china plate. The most satisfactory work of the period is that which most resembles missal painting, i.e. which is fullest of beautiful flowers and animals scattered among the landscape, in the old independent way, like the birds upon a screen (see, for instance, Benozzo Gozzoli, II. 591, p. 38). Correggio and Titian carried the advance farther (see under VII. 4, p. 140); but there were still no effects of sunshine and shadow; and the clouds, though now rolling in irregular masses, and sometimes richly involved among the hills, were never varied in conception or studied from nature.” The next step was to do away with conventionalism altogether. The attempt was made by Claude, the two Poussins, and Salvator Rosa; but it failed in the manner and for the reasons that we have already discussed (see p. 335). The reaction against the artificial and pastoral school of landscape, which in literature is seen in Scott, Byron, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley and Tennyson, is in painting first seen in its perfection in Turner. “He was the first painter to draw a mountain or a stone, no other man having learned their organisation, or possessed himself of their spirit. He was the first painter to draw the stem of a tree, and the first to represent the surface of calm, or the force of agitated, water.” Turner did all this with scientific accuracy—not because he was himself learned in science, but because of his genius for seeing into the heart of things and seizing their essential forms and character (see p. 610). And this is what is, or should be, meant by saying that Turner's landscape is “ideal.” “The true ideal of landscape is precisely the same as that of the human form ; it is the expression of the specific, not the individual, but the specific character of every object in its perfection.” And observe that Turner not only did each of the things above described, but did them all. “Every landscape painter before him had acquired distinction by confining his efforts to one class of subject. Hobbema painted oaks; Ruysdael, waterfalls and copses; Cuyp, river or meadow scenes in quiet afternoons ; Salvator and Poussin, such kind of mountain scenery as people could conceive who lived in towns in the seventeenth century. But Turner challenged and vanquished each in his own peculiar field, Vandevelde on the sea, Salvator among rocks, and Cuyp on Lowland rivers ; and having done this, set himself to paint the natural scenery of skies which, until his time, had never been so much as attempted. He is the only painter who has ever drawn the sky, not the clear sky—which was painted beautifully by the early religious schools, but the various forms and phenomena of the cloudy heavens : all previous artists having only represented it typically or partially, but he perfectly and universally.” An examination of the skies in the Turner rooms will show that there are almost as many different effects of sky—of sunrise, sunset, sunshine, storm, and rain, as there are pictures. Further, he is the only painter who has perfectly represented the effects of space on distant objects. Next to his skies there is nothing so peculiarly “Turnerian "as his distances. Look at such pictures as 497 and 516, pp. 606, 603 ; and see if anywhere else in the Gallery there are such vistas fading away into incomprehensible dimness, but retaining always their gradation of light as they recede into the distance. Leslie, the artist, once gave Turner a commission for an American friend, and had to explain to him afterwards that the purchaser thought the picture indistinct. “ You should tell him,” replied Turner, “that indistinctness is my forte.” It was Turner's forte, but it is also nature's rule, with whom nothing is ever distinct and nothing ever vacant (see p. 611). The fulness and mystery of Turner's distances is conspicuous in his landscapes, but the truth of it will perhaps be understood better in observing the distant character of rich architecture, than of any other object. “Go to the top of Highgate Hill on a clear summer morning,” says Mr. Ruskin, “and look at Westminster Abbey. You will receive an impression of a building enriched with multitudinous vertical lines. Try to distinguish one of those lines all the way down from the one next to it: you cannot. Try to count them : you cannot. Try to make out the beginning or end of any one of them : you cannot. Look at it generally, and it is all symmetry and arrangement. Look at it in its parts, and it is all inextricable confusion. Am not I, at this moment, describing a piece of Turner's drawing, with the same words by which I describe nature ? . . . Turner, and Turner only, would follow and render on the canvas that mystery of decided lines, that distinct, sharp, visible, but unintelligible and inextricable richness which, examined part by part, is to the eye nothing but confusion and defeat, which, taken as a whole, is all unity, symmetry, and truth.” So, again, Turner is the first painter who fully represented the beauty of natural colour. The full truth he could not give. For “take a blade of grass and a scarlet flower, and place them, so as to receive sunlight, beside the brightest canvas that ever left Turner's easel, and the picture will be extinguished.” Again, it was Turner who for the first time gave the full beauty of sun-colour. He began with imitations of Claude and Cuyp in painting the sun rising through vapour (XIV. 479, p. 344), but he ended with painting such visions of the sun in his glory as in the “ Téméraire" or the “ Ulysses ” (see under X. 53, p. 218). And “the peculiar innovation of Turner was the perfection of the colour chord by means of scarlet. Other painters had rendered the golden tones, and the blue tones of sky; Titian especially the last, in perfection. But none dared to paint, none seemed to have seen, the scarlet and purple. Nor was it only in seeing this colour in vividness when it occurred in full light, that Turner differed from preceding painters. His most distinctive innovation as a colourist was his discovery of the scarlet shadow.” This was Turner's innovation, but it was not his invention. “We are only to paint,” he said, “what we see.” A friend once asked him incredulously whether he painted his clouds from nature. Turner eyed him with an angry frown and growled out, “How would you have me paint them ?” This, then, is Turner's first claim to greatness. He is the painter of the truth and beauty of natural scenery.
1 He was, however, much interested in science. Dr. M'Culloch, the geologist, was delighted with his acute mind, and said, “That man would have been great in any and everything he chose to take up ; he has such a clear, intelligent, piercing intellect." He was fond, too, of discussing optics; and late in life he was for some time a constant visitor at Mr. Mayall's, the photographer, who initiated him in the processes of that art.
But if this be so, why, it may be asked, do Turner's pictures often look, at first sight, so different from nature?
And why, if one knows some particular spot painted by Turner, does it fail to immediately recall the reality ? For two reasons, both of them lying at the root of art criticism. In the first place, the whole truth of any visible scene can never be portrayed on any single canvas. There are some truths, easily obtained, which give a deceptive resemblance to nature; others only to be obtained with difficulty, which cause no deception, but give inner and deep resemblance. Turner's peculiarity is that he perceives more of this latter kind of truth than other painters. Take one instance from his mountains. One truth about mountains is that they stand out in such and such relief from a clear sky—that is an effect which many of the earlier painters gave. But what Turner saw also in the hills was their multitudinousness—the valleys and gulleys, the forests and pastures, that fill their hollows or curve their sides. “Invention, colour, grace of arrangement, we may find in Tintoret and Veronese in various manifestation ; but the expression of the infinite redundance of natural landscape had never been attempted until Turner's time; and the treatment of masses of mountain in the 'Daphne' (520, p. 610) is wholly without precursorship in art.” The more one looks at that picture the more one sees the multitude of truths expressed by it, but the very expression of them deprives it of any immediate appearance of deceptive imitation. And this sacrifice of lesser truths to greater is especially necessary in the field which especially distinguishes Turner's pictures. If one had to characterise the aim of his artistic ambition in a single word, one would say that it was to gain a complete knowledge and reach a complete representation of light in all its phases. But “it is wholly impossible to paint an effect of sunlight truly. It never has been done, and never will be. For the sun is red fire, as well as red light”: nature's highest light is incomparably above any light possible to the
i Chesneau : The English School, p. 149. But what, it may well be asked, of these dark pictures on the left ? They were studies in the style of earlier painters with a view of perfecting his knowledge. “When these clever imitations were exhibited to the public, he was declared to be a master by the leading judges of the day. Turner only smiled to himself,