DANIEL E. SUTHERLAND: LETTERS FROM AMERICA
James Whistler’s Nocturnes would seem to owe a good deal to J. M. W. Turner. Certainly, the abstract quality of a late oil painting like Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed and some of his Venetian watercolours might well have inspired certain Nocturnes. A splendid 2005 exhibition at Tate Britain, Turner Whistler Monet, made a strong case for the connection. Yet, while the young Whistler had admired Turner, even copied him, he ultimately denied his influence as vigorously as he rejected the Realism of Gustave Courbet. Let’s explore this alternative view.
Whistler undoubtedly admired Turner during his youth and early manhood. His brother-in-law and early mentor Seymour Haden likely nudged him in that direction. Haden was a Turner enthusiast and had a wealth of stories about the eccentric old artist’s “peculiarities.” Whistler made an extraordinarily good
watercolour copy of one of Turner’s atmospheric paintings, Rockets and Blue Lights, in about 1854, before even embarking on his student days in Paris. Shortly thereafter, when attending the 1857 Art Treasures show in Manchester, he could have gorged himself on over one-hundred Turner oils and watercolours exhibited there.
American poet Ezra Pound, who revered Whistler, found an affinity between his hero and Turner. The pictures of both artists, he observed, expressed “beauty in mists, shadows, a hundred places where you never dreamed of seeing it before.” Turner seldom used London as his subject, and most of those paintings offered traditional, recognizable views of the city, as in Moonlight, a Study at Millbank and London from Greenwich Park. Only in later paintings, such as The Thames above Waterloo Bridge, did he come close to capturing the city’s atmosphere as Whistler would do. Yet, with smoke and atmosphere their main subjects, those pictures became mere swaths of colour.
By the time Whistler began his “moonlights,” a title also favoured by Turner, he had rebelled against the Englishman’s use of colour and his impressionistic effects. As early as 1864, he poked fun at the “random rays” of light that Turner gave to a “setting sun.” Years later, he said something similar to Mortimer Menpes when he called Turner’s work “too prismatic.” In some ways, Turner—again, emphasizing his later, more abstract work--was too angry a painter, a master of chaos and storms who exhibited “no reserve,” as Whistler explained to Menpes. There was a fierceness even in the bulky, impasto application of Turner’s paint, which Whistler, seeking harmony and tranquility, had abandoned by the 1870s. People often spoke of the “mystery” and “poetry” in Whistler’s Nocturnes. Not so with Turner, whom Whistler eventually dismissed as “that old amateur.”
Turner and Whistler did share an instinct for testing the limits of visual perception in their use of light. They also used non-naturalistic colours to achieve a desired effect. As with Turner, nature’s tones were only a starting point for Whistler. However, the two artists generally sought different ends. In his landscapes, Turner wished to create awe-inspiring scenes, quite often as a means of conveying the feel and experience of a dawning industrial age through its most notable features: speed, power, and atmosphere. In that sense, he was very much a painter of modern life, though in ways far different from the ones later envisioned by Charles Baudelaire. Whistler did not ignore the industrial backdrop of London, but Turner’s landscapes were often vehicles for showcasing recognizable current or historical events. Whistler never dreamed of doing such a thing.
All that said, some scholars believe Whistler learned quite a bit from Turner, especially in his painting technique and selection of subjects. They interpret Whistler’s later criticism of Turner as an indirect means of diminishing the authority of John Ruskin, who had been Turner’s foremost champion, or propose that Whistler meant only to dismiss specific paintings, not the entirety of Turner’s work. There is something to be said for these perspectives, and it would probably be going too far to say, as print dealer Algernon Graves insisted, that Whistler “reviled” Turner. Nor should we forget Whistler’s habit of promoting the uniqueness of his own art and ideas. He had no intention of sharing credit for his “lovely London fogs.”
It is also true that Whistler is not known to have said or written anything positive about Turner, whereas he freely—and contrary to his image—praised the work of artists he admired. Most obvious were Velázquez and Rembrandt (though he was more impressed by the latter’s etchings than his paintings), but he also respected such painters as Veronese, Tintoretto, and Canaletto. He ranked Claude Lorrain over Turner on more than one occasion, and such Japanese painters as Hokusai and Hiroshige were in a league of their own. Whistler voiced his opinions privately, almost confidentially, to such young admirers as Menpes, Otto Bacher, William Rothenstein, and Harper Pennington as a means of educating them. In one instance, Pennington, suddenly realizing the merits of William Hogarth, an early influence on Whistler, rushed up to the Master in the National Gallery and fairly shouted, “Why – Hogarth! – He was a great Painter!” A bemused Whistler whispered to him conspiratorially, “Sh-sh! Sh-sh-yes! I know it! . . . But don’t you tell ‘em!”
Whistler never hinted at any secret admiration for Turner, not even in a mawkish way or in one of his famous back-handed compliments. There was no “Why drag in Turner,” or “Paints a little, too,” quips he had applied to Velázquez and Frederic Leighton, respectively. Instead, according to fellow artist Walter Gay, when asked for his opinion on whether a purported painting by Turner was genuine or fake, Whistler replied that such a determination was “[q]uite impossible.” For “after all,” he explained, “isn’t the distinction a very subtle one?”
An obituary for Whistler in the New York Tribune declared, “He was not a devotee of Turner, but he yielded to no man in appreciation of certain of the works of that painter.” Perhaps that is where the balance lies. Whistler could not or would not embrace Turner as a model, but that is not to say he failed to recognize genius.
Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844) J. M. W. Turner, oil on canvas, National
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of
Shoal Water (1840) J. M. W. Turner, oil on canvas, The Clark Art Institute
The Thames above Waterloo Bridge (c.1830–5) ) J. M. W. Turner, oil on canvas, Tate Collection,
Moonlight, a Study at Millbank, J. M. W. Turner, oil on canvas, Tate Collection, London
Venice from the Laguna (c.1835) J. M. W. Turner, watercolour, National Galleries of Scotland
We continue to be grateful to Dan Sutherland for his Letters from America. They originate from his notes and research for his forthcoming book which will explore the enduring influence of James McNeill Whistler and the lives of those he knew and inspired.