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Monday, December 22, 2014

JMW Turner's Rome paintings - new light, new film, new prices

Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino
JMW Turner, the 19th-century artist experiencing a kind of renaissance of public opinion, in some ways is simply one among the hundreds of artists influenced by Rome.  And he's one who doesnt easily come to mind when we think of Rome influences.  With Turner, we think of seascapes.  I first saw - to my surprise - a few of his Rome works in the magnificent collection in London at the Tate Britain (not the Tate Modern).  Turner's views of Rome illuminate (and I use that word purposefully because of Turner's amazing representation of light) the city in a blend of realism and idealism that quickens the heart of any Romaphile.

Mike Leigh's new biopic, Mr.Turner, focuses on the last 25 years of the painters life, but does not include the Rome years.  Yet the film brings to life this often underrated - especially in Rome - painter.  One of the Rome paintings is seen quickly in the film at some point -  as I recall, the Forum Romanum for Mr. Soane's Museum (see below); and the movie helps us understand the eccentric Turner's love of light and ability with color.

Turner's Rome paintings also are in the news for their recent sales.  The Getty LA bought Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino (at top) in 2010 for $45 million, a record for a Turner at that time.  The British government placed an embargo on the painting, hoping a British museum would raise the money to buy it so it would not leave the country.  None did, and so the Getty now owns this acknowledged masterpiece. Modern Rome, a view over the forum, exhibits Turners exceptional ability to capture the real and the idealized views with an extraordinary mastery of color.  The Getty describes the work as follows:

"Ten years after his final journey to Rome, Turner envisioned the Eternal City through a veil of memory. Baroque churches and ancient monuments in and around the Roman Forum seem to dissolve in iridescent light shed by a moon rising at left and a sun setting behind the Capitoline Hill at right. Amidst these splendors, the city's inhabitants carry on with their daily activities. The picture's nacreous palette and shimmering light effects exemplify Turner at his most accomplished.

When first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1839 with its pendant, Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus, the painting was accompanied by a modified quotation from Lord Byron's masterpiece, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1818): "The moon is up, and yet it is not night / The sun as yet divides the day with her." Like the poem, Turner's painting evokes the enduring sublimity of Rome, which had been for artists throughout history less a place in the real world than one in the imagination.

The painting is in a remarkable state of preservation and remains untouched since it left Turner's hands."

Given that last statement, we're not sure why it's not yet on display at the Getty. [UPDATE:  The Getty is hosting what looks like a magnificent Turner exhibit Feb. 24-May 24, 2015 - and it looks like this painting will be in the exhibit.  It's one of 3 paintings on the Web site announcing the exhibit.]

Just this December 3, another Turner Rome painting - Rome, From Mount Aventine, painted in 1835 (at left), sold for $47.5 million, setting yet another record (the estimated value going into the Sotheby's auction was 15-20 million pounds; it sold for 30.3 million pounds).  It was the first time the painting had been sold in more than 130 years. 

Turner was an inveterate sketcher (also shown in Leigh's film), and no doubt used his many sketches to paint Modern Rome 10 years, and Rome, From Mount Aventine, 7 years (respectively) after he left the city.  Those sketchbooks also are the property of the Tate, and can be viewed online as well

Vision of Medea - one of the 3 works exhibited in Rome in 1928
and on display at the Tate Britain when I saw it.
In 1828, Turner's second trip to Italy (the first was in 1819 and also included Rome), he stayed primarily in Rome and 3 of his works were on public display.  His biographer says a high number of visitors (estimated 1,000) saw these works, and "were mostly mystified by what they saw," so new and unusual was his painting style.

Turner was born in 1775 to working class parents (his father was a wigmaker, and then, when those went out of style, astutely turned to being a barber).  The painter's early work under architects perhaps explains some of his life-long attraction to architectural forms, which served him well in Rome. 

As noted above, another great Rome painting is Forum Romanum for Mr. Soane's Museum.  Soane was an architect - so the architectural themes play out again here.  (And if you haven't been to the Soane Museum in London, put it on your Top Ten list!)  This painting, however, ended up as part of Turner's bequest to the government; so it apparently never went to Soane's museum; why, I don't know. 
Perhaps the most famous Rome painting is Rome, from the Vatican. Raffaelle, Accompanied by La Fornarina, Preparing his Pictures for the Decoration of the Loggia, exhibited 1820 (above).  Raphael was one of Turner's influences and 1820 marked the 300th year of Raphael's death. 

So why the Turner Exhibit at the Tate - including one on view now of "Late Turner"?  Turner bequeathed the government all the paintings, sketches, and sketchbooks in his possession at his death, with a plan to establish a fund for needy artists.  The fund never materialized, but more than a century later, the Turner Society raised enough money for the exhibition space for this vast collection at the Tate.   Many of the works are on permanent display there.

Turner is sometimes called the painter of light, and these Rome paintings exhibit that quality.  He supposedly said on his deathbed (and as replicated in Mike Leighs film), "The Sun is God," attributing a kind of metaphysical power to light. 


1 comment:

Patricia said...

I was in the Soane museum last week, and the picture gallery curator said that the picture was commissioned, and exhibited prior to delivery. There were some poor reviews and Soane lost his nerve and refused the painting.
What a gaffe!