Details from Monet's 'Charing Cross Bridge, the Thames', Whistler's 'Nocturne in blue and silver - Chelsea'
and Turner's 'Venice - view of the lagoon at sunset'. ©RMN
Turner - Whistler -Monet
13th October 2004 to 17th January 2005
It was a profound admiration for Turner’s work that brought together Whistler and Monet. Whistler was particularly impressed by Turner’s views of Venice and he spent a year there (1879-80) doing pastels and etchings. Monet discovered Turner’s work at the National Gallery during his stay in London at the time of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. He came in contact with Whistler’s etchings of the Thames river and his nocturnes at the same epoch.
The American-born Whistler, an admirer of Courbet’s realism and friend of Fantin -Latour and Legros, studied in Paris and later settled in London. Through their common interest for Turner, Monet and Whistler struck up a frienship which, in addition to inspiring them both, led to them helping each other to exhibit in the two cities. Monet helped Whistler hold an exhibition of his watercolors and pastels in the Georges Petit Gallery in Paris in 1887, and Monet’s work found its way to London’s Royal Society of British Artists during the same Year.
The effect of the rising sun on the Seine, or the fog-filled skies over the Thames, were the source of Monet’s fascination with the impact of light on water and sky, stimulated by his discovery of Turner and Whistler’s work.
The exhibition proposes Monet’s work from 1871(inspired by the Thames) and his 1899 to 1901 series of the Houses of Parliament and Charing Cross Bridge or the Waterloo Bridge. The exhibition suggests as a possible source of several of Monet’s paintings, a number of watercolors and etchings by Turner and Whistler. Scenes painted in Venice by the three painters are exhibited side-by-side. The challenge of capturing the real beauty of Venice was perhaps what they had most in common, what they shared beyond the borders of the actual cities
and beyond time.
Turner - Whistler - Monet: a Trialogue at a Turning Point in 19th Century Art
The theme of the exhibition, organized to celebrate the centenary of the ‘entente cordiale’ between Britain and France, is a comparative study of the three painters’ seascapes, or more precisely the interpretation of the interaction between water, atmosphere and light by the three painters.
The comparison of the three painters is interesting to show how they influenced each other through their similarities, but the contrast is more striking still through their different interpretations of the same themes and even the same scenes. In fact it is these dissimilarities that constitute the unique signature of each artist; it is their particularity that signifies and brings forward their personality as three distinguished artists of 19th century Europe.
Turner, often compared to Claude Lorraine (Mortlake Terrace, National Gallery of Washington), had a Leonardo-like touch of mystery in his Romantic landscapes, as well as a Rembrandt's sensitivity to light and a Venetian taste for color. This is both in Turner's chosen colors, the elegance of the drawing and overall in the imaging of the color composition. The light starts in one point and gradually melts the colors and takes over altogether. Although overwhelming, this light is diffused and has a warm, enveloping and protective quality about it. It is like the light at the end of the tunnel that so many people with after-life experience claim to have seen. Having abstracted the figures out of his landscapes, he gradually abstracted natural elements from it, leaving only those elements that have an undefined natural shape, such as water and atmosphere. In John Ruskin’s words, Turner captured the whole surface of the sea
undirected, bounding, and crashing, and coiling in an anarchy of enormous power. Undirected anarchy or abstraction, enormous power or Romanticism, and the two combined give Turner’s unique artistic signature. John Constable met Turner at the Royal Academy and summed up his persona in a few telling words: He is uncouth but has a wonderful range of mind. Watercolors gave another aspect of his art even if light and color dominate the drawing. His strong hand at drawing comes forward in his etchings. Those works of his that were judged unfinished were quite possibly so, voluntarily ‘non-finito’ à la Leonardo. The exhibition does show how Turner bridged the old masters to the Impressionists with his simplified compositions, clarified colors and gradual abstraction of forms (e.g. Landscape with a River and a Bay in the Background, 1845). In his ‘L’Impressioniste Turner’ or ‘Turner the Impressionist’, Emile Verhareren writes that Turner was born an Academician and died an Impressionist. In fact the influence of his mentor Colt Hoare since 1797 was decisive in his profound attachment to antiquity, but his love of light and color led him to a conceptual art, both formally and technically, bringing him nearer some of the Impressionists with a penchant for further abstraction.
His connections with French art and France were manifold. His first trip abroad was in 1802 to visit the Louvre, and after traveling widely across the continent, mainly to Italy and Switzerland, his last trips were also to France. From Claude Lorraine’s sunsets to Turner’s watercolor ‘Crimson sunset’ of 1830 and Claude Monet’s ‘Impression, sunrise’ of 1872, it is more the connections than the similarities that are meaningful. But the bridge of Turner to Monet passed also through another painter, the American-born, Whistler.
If Turner was the unfolding of energy, Whistler was stillness and reflection in profundity. The night and it’s stillness were symbolic of the mystery of eternity; it is not the objects but what surrounds them the silences that give meaning and depth, like in music. John Ruskin’s reaction to Whistler's 'Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket' shows up the former's limits as an art critic. With hindsight we can see that the picture was not tantamount to flinging a pot of paint in the public's face as Ruskin summed up, but was in fact an avant-garde painting announcing abstraction. Unfortunately, it led to much acrimony and even bankruptcy for the artist. And, surprisingly enough, Whistler's ‘nocturnes’ now stand out as the most modern in the pick of the three artists' work in this exhibition. His other more conventional or 'intimiste' works, better known to the general public, do not appear in this selection.
While both Whistler and Monet were aware of the influence of Turner on their work, they both tried to keep him at a distance and affirm their own personalities. Although Whistler bought a house opposite where Turner had lived in Chelsea, no doubt to paint the same views of the Thames he enjoyed a fascination for the river Thames, as did both Turner and Monet he did have altercations with two convinced admirers of Turner, his brother-in-law Seymour Haden, and art critic John Ruskin, whom he sued for libel. Moreover, his adoption of a butterfly as signature is a manifestation of his desire to affirm his originality.
The person who best understood the depth of Whistler’s fascination for Turner and shared the same opinion about the latter, was Monet. But both Monet and Whistler were aware that they needed to develop their own personal styles and had an ambiguous position when they acknowledged Turner’s influence. Although Monet was amongst the nine Impressionists who signed a letter in 1882 emphasizing the influence of Turner on their work in order to persuade the Director of the Grosvenor Gallery to hold a collective exhibition for them in London, many times in private he mentioned that he did not appreciate Turner’s excessive Romanticism. And although he told a British journalist that he goes back to the National Gallery to see Turner’s work every time he visits London, he also wrote that In the past, I liked Turner a lot, a little less now
he didn’t model his colors enough and he put on too much of it
I studied Turner a lot. However, Monet’s analysis of Turner’s technique also sounds like a description of his own: Turner used the same colors on every section of his canvas. The sky being predominantly blue, yet carrying touches of other colors such as red, green, etc. A green meadow was treated the same way, with many other colors appearing in a predominant green etc
this was in order to convey the subtle harmony of nature.
Whistler on the other hand seemed to move away from the natural realism of a Courbet towards a more conceptual art that was closer to Turner, and he even wrote to Fantin-Latour that he would rather take his roots in Ingres. He resembled Monet in his love of profundity and reflection, symbolized by the waters of the Thames.
Monet’s intrinsic difference, whatever the influences of the other two painters and his contemporaries, was in the tireless quest of the fugitive instant and the unique scene and atmosphere it produced. Each work was like a unique poem of an instant in life, making the same scene catch different colors of the prism and therefore appear under a different identity, and as everything was produced by spontaneous brushwork charged with personal and subjective choices of colors, one can say that he instilled an instant of his own life into an instant of nature. Although Turner sketched the same scenes several times in different lighting, Monet produced his series intentionally (1890-91), explaining that they should not be looked upon as isolated paintings but that they acquire all their value only if they are seen compared to each other. His works in the series of views of the Thames bring out the constant change of light that transformed the appearance of the objects. His passion was to observe nature and paint it there and then with passionately charged brush-strokes.
Monet and Pissarro came in contact with Turner’s work in 1870 in London where they had both taken refuge in order to avoid the Franco-Prussian war. Having been aware already of Turner’s reputation and the controversial commentaries about his work, that ranged from characterizing Turner approvingly as one who painted the light itself, or disapprovingly as one who was evolving towards chaotic, shapeless paintings with diaphanous colors. They did however agree on the difficulty to classify him easily as a ‘naturalist’ or ‘realist’, underlining his difference with Constable, who was better known at the time in France than in England. Constable’s ‘naturalism’ was more understood in France than Turner’s ‘metaphysical nature, its mystery and magnificence’. But this was far from consensual as there were those who defended Turner’s ‘impassioned imagination’ that gave a more energetic view of nature. Nevertheless, Monet must have been impressed with Turner’s work when he visited the renovated and enlarged London National Gallery, where Turner was given an important place. But it seems that, technically, Monet learned as much from Whistler’s ‘Nocturnes’ as from Turner’s ‘sunrises’ or ‘sunsets’. From both he possibly learned to express light with brush-strokes. Although the influence of Turner on Pissarro’s own work is not noticeable, he proclaimed Turner as a source of inspiration: We all come from Turner; he was the first, perhaps, who knew how to inflame the colors in their natural brightness.
In this game of ‘who influenced whom’, as early as 1880 the art critics were able to identify Turner as the source for the Impressionists. But, as often happens with artists, the similarities are not always the result of influence of one on another, but simply the result of having similar tastes or finding similar solutions, of being on the same wavelength. A true artistic nature usually attempts to find what has escaped others, and wants to reinvent the world; it is not one that is happy copying the others. Whereas Turner was seemingly proud of the influence of the classical painters on his work, to the point of asking to have his ‘Dido building Carthage’ and ‘Sunrise in fog’ to be shown beside the paintings of Claude Lorraine, Monet and Whistler were more attached to their originality as painters.
The interest of this exhibition is to ‘hear’ the posthumous, silent ‘trialogue’ that they still have with each other on their favorite theme: the conjunction of water, earth and sky through light in their favorite places on water, Venice and London. This is also a dialog with their admirers, such as Proust (La Fugitive, 1925), Mallarmé and Signac, as well as with us through their astonishing modernity.
Art Lovers Paris
Source for biographical data: catalogue of the exhibition.