England has not had its share of great painters. Flashes of genius, yes, from Nicholas Hilliard in Shakespeare's day to Francis Bacon in ours. True painterly greatness, however, seems to have passed England by - unless we consider Blake a painter, and Turner and Constable as great as the English say they are.
I, for one, think they are. I know of nothing greater in landscape art than some of Constable's oil sketches and paintings, and who has ever surpassed Turner as a painter of light and the awesomeness of nature?
Both were great but in very different ways. Constable was solid, substantial, and earthbound, while Turner was more ephemeral, more inclined to flights of fancy, and more open and suggestive in style.
Both contributed enormously to the development of mid to late 19th-century landscape painting by concentrating on the study of light, space, color, and atmosphere, and by insisting upon the sheer physicality of paint. Each in his own way can be described as a forefather of Impressionism.
But it is Turner who particularly interests us today, and largely because of his open and light-obsessed vision as well as his uncanny ability both to hide and reveal the substance and point of his art.
The range of Turner's art was extraordinary. His youthful works rival the paintings of Claude and the 17th-century Dutch landscapists in precision, detail , and complexity, while his late oils and watercolors rival anything done today in looseness of execution and suggestiveness of form and color.
He was an independent spirit right from the start, even when, as a young man still in his 20s - and a Royal Academician to boot - he presumed to paint in a manner judged careless and unfinished by some of his more important contemporaries. What rankled his peers then, and was to drive some of them to fury a few years later, was Turner's habit of creating approximations, rather than strict representations of nature, and painting pictures that, while true to life in overall effect, were not so in particular or in detail.
What particularly rankled was that he made increasingly small effort to hide the painterly means by which he achieved his final effects. From a distance, his canvases might give a true impression of a particular place or event, but close up they were jungles of smeared and roughly textured mounds of paint that seemed to bear no relation to the subject depicted. They seemed to be as much about paint as about a place on land or sea, and this in a time when painting was assumed to be at its best when it did not call attention to itself.
As the years went on, Turner became more and more fascinated by color, especially as it established its identity in and through light. The ultimate Turner painting would have been pure white, the ''color'' of light. And in fact many of his watercolors and a few of his oils are so high-keyed in color that they consist of little more than a few smudges and washes of yellows, ochres, and the very lightest of blues.
In his literally thousands of sketches and watercolors, Turner worked away at the problem of both suggesting and defining form through light - and thus through color. He was the first major artist, as far as we know, to schematize color through diagrams, and the first to devote almost as much time to the study of reflections in various surfaces as to the study of sunsets and dramatic dawns. And what made it all of particular interest and value to us was that he studied and recorded his impressions immediately and quickly upon whatever canvases, notebook sheets, or bits of paper were handy. And then bequeathed all that were unsold and unfinished at the time of his death to the British nation.
His deepest value to us, of course, does not lie in what he studied and recorded but in what those studies permitted him to accomplish as an artist. He had an extraordinary vision, and all his probings and experimentations were directed toward one major goal: to give that vision form as art.
To that end he painted whatever physical places or actual events gave him license to create extravaganzas of light and color: storms at sea, sunrises, sunsets, snowstorms, the effect of burning buildings upon sky and water, shipwrecks, fireworks, and the more gentle effects of diffused light upon land and sea.
He also visited and painted Venice, and found it a perfect setting for his art. Its shimmering light, the proximity of its architecture to water, its romantic and historic connotations, and its traditional love for opulent and glowing color, made it the ideal city for Turner's art.
He took it up and painted some of the most successful and magical works while under its spell. ''The Grand Canal, Venice'' was one of them.