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Currents of influence

A London exhibition examines how Monet and Whistler strove to improve upon the pioneering work of J.M.W. Turner.

By Christopher AndreaeCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 22, 2005


English painter J.M.W. Turner was not famously modest about his achievements. He was convinced, for example, that his work outshone that of the Old Masters. Some of his contemporaries mocked his self-adulation, others praised him prodigiously. But two enormously talented artists later in the 19th century rated Turner's work very highly: James McNeill Whistler and Claude Monet.

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Turner's large oil paintings - resonant with vaporous reaches of reflected light - and particularly his numerous watercolors - full of quick vitality and a sense of the numinous - were not simply admired by these two artists. They saw them as a kind of challenge, a gauntlet thrown down. So Turner became a stimulating precursor of Impressionism.

Whistler and Monet may not always have been willing to admit their debt to Turner, but they both consciously sought out the places Turner had painted and transformed them into their own vivid and poetical images of fleeting moments, of forever changing light and reflection.

The complex relationship of these three artists is explored in the exhibition "Turner Whistler Monet" at the Tate Britain museum here. It is proving to be as hugely popular with gallerygoers as it is visually impressive, with remarkable loans from international sources.

The trio's careers together spanned most of the 19th century. The Englishman Turner (1775 to 1851), the American Whistler (1834 to 1903), and the Frenchman Monet (1840 to 1926), were often linked by choice of subject and by threads of influence, even if documentary evidence of these threads is rather scant. Turner never met Whistler or Monet, but the latter became close friends.

This show breaks fresh ground. It brings together small works on paper and large oil paintings by each member of the triumvirate to demonstrate a much greater degree of shared preoccupations and ambitions than historians have previously conceded. In some cases, the seeds of influence - from Turner's paintings of Venice to Monet's late paintings of the same city - only germinated after many years.

Whistler's Venetian works of the 1880s show Turner to be clearly - or mistily - in the forefront of his mind. Some influences, at certain times between Whistler and Monet for instance, were more immediate, as between almost contemporary friends who admired each other's work.

But "influence," may not be the right word, the exhibition and its catalog essays suggest. "Challenge" comes closer - a challenge to stimulate each artist's own determined originality. So, paradoxically, what finally stands out are their marked differences rather than their similarities. There is no mistaking each artist's work.

The connections between the three are often subtle, and at times deliberately disguised. Monet in particular seems to spring from nowhere, a complete original. Each had a vigorous conviction of his individual genius - it was a sign of the times - and was driven by a powerful competitive streak. The show's curator and original proponent, Katherine Lochnan (Whistler specialist and senior curator of prints and drawings at the Art Gallery of Ontario), says that artists in the 19th century "were very keen to present themselves as having no artistic parentage." The relationship of Whistler and Monet to Turner, the father figure of the story, involved something more than a hand-me-down artistic inheritance or an extension of some academic tradition.

Turner himself was just as competitive as his successors. He was the first of the three to play the competitive game and he played it quite blatantly. He did his utmost not to be outdone by his contemporaries. After his death, his will even presumptuously stipulated that the National Gallery was to receive two of his paintings (one of which is in the exhibition) only if they were hung next to paintings by Claude Lorrain, the 17th-century French painter of light-suffused classical landscapes. Turner believed he had surpassed Claude.