Currents of influence

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

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

The two younger artists were far less inclined to openly admit any debt to or challenge in Turner's work, yet this exhibition leaves little doubt of the older artist's powerful effect on their art. Whistler was captivated by Turner's work, and the soft, crepuscular atmosphere of his Thames etchings and "nocturne" paintings inarguably develop out of an ethos previously explored by Turner (who lived on the banks of London's river).

Both Whistler and Monet must have been perfectly aware when they painted the Thames that Turner had been there before them.

The exhibition tellingly pinpoints works by Turner that Whistler and Monet saw or were most likely to have seen, as well as some they probably never saw.

Ms. Lochnan describes the exhibition as showing how "ideas move around." These three artists themselves moved around a lot. Turner was an inveterate traveler. The resulting flood of watercolors - wonderful ones on display here from Switzerland in particular - established his reputation as a master of instantaneous light and weather effects quite as much as his large exhibition oils did. Although he didn't paint in series, strictly speaking, the exhibition makes a strong case that Monet's famous series paintings - of water lilies or grainstacks, for example - have a precedent in Turner's Swiss sketches.

Monet took this idea much further than either Turner or Whistler (who also inked his etchings to suggest different times and lights), but Lochnan argues that it was the "instantaneity of things" that all three artists were obsessed with. Monet would have seen more than one variation on Turner's Swiss watercolor theme, she says. One of the motives of this exhibition was to "take this question of Monet's series paintings out of the realm of 'Monet invented the idea.' "

In some ways, Whistler comes across as a kind of intermediary between Turner and Monet. The exhibition, investing him with no less prominence than the other two artists, has given his reputation something of a lift. He is not always seen as an artistic heavyweight. Various factors militated against his being taken completely seriously. Whistler's showmanship, his pugnacity, and the distinct possibility, according to Lochnan, that he was "pilloried" as an outsider by a strong British anti-Americanism - all made his acceptance in British art circles problematic.

"He was considered a bit of a caricature and was endlessly being shoved out," Lochnan says. "And it's happening again today."

Critical coverage of this exhibition has intriguingly brought to the surface various degrees of national cultural prejudice. It seems the different nationalities of these three artists continue to bias fair assessments of their work.

In his day, Turner wasn't always accepted, even in his own country. He was the object of ridicule as he became increasingly unconventional. Ridicule was similarly heaped on Whistler (Ruskin notoriously called him a "coxcomb" and was sued for his pains) and Monet and his French Impressionist colleagues were, in France, and for much longer in Britain, thought to be scandalously beyond the pale. Whistler was also dismissed as a "French Impressionist."

Undercurrents of national prejudice may underlie the story this exhibition tells, but, for the queues of ordinary art lovers forming daily at Tate Britain, such issues don't matter a jot.

'Turner Whistler Monet' continues at the Tate Britain in London through May 15.

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