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Turner's Place in Art History

The Renaissance began in the 12th century or maybe earlier.  That is the renaissance of Representation of the world.  It began with Sculpture and an appreciation of classical sculpture (though other media – such as stained glass, illuminations, tapestry – media not designed for realistic representation – continued to flourish).  Sculpture led to Giotto and from him the development of Renaissance painting (though realistic painting in the Netherlands had a partly different course, driven by developments in optics).  This reached perfection – as regards Representation – in the 17th century with artists such as Rembrandt and Claude, whose perfection and the impossibility of equalling it brought tears to the eyes of Turner.  British artists of his generation were haunted by the challenge, set by the connoisseurs, of equalling these forbears, hence Turner’s first bequest of two pictures to hang with two Claudes.  These did not outdo Claude on the latter’s own terms but introduced a new Romantic spin.  The later Turner and the PRBs gave up the competition and did not try to outdo the Renaissance painters on their own grounds.  This was the beginning of Modern Art. 


In certain works of Turner one can see presentiments of later movements – Impressionism, Aestheticism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Symbolism, Abstraction -  though Ruskin did not quite see this, and some champions of these later movements, hostile to Turner’s Romanticism, did not either.  With the beginning of the 20th century there was a more decided break with the past among the avant-garde.  This was further encouraged by two World Wars, the horrors of which caused a turning away not only from Representation but also Beauty.  By the 21st century there was also a turning-away from traditional media of painting etc., encouraged by those artists who realised that they had no gift for them, so that the chain connecting Turner with later developments is now broken.

Selby Whittingham    19 August 2023

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