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Impressionism and Turner


The familiar sunshine effects of Impressionism are well known, but Impressionism was a two-sided coin. It’s currency has been debased and distorted. When first seen the paintings upset and unsettled the public. It’s hard to believe now because we are so used to the re-assuring prettiness of these works. The depictions of people were particularly upsetting. Figures painted in outdoor light were transformed negatively and frighteningly: green and violet reflections on skin reminded them of decay, illness and death. The painters didn’t intend to shock, but by making the whole spectrum of colour equate with light instead of using a semi-tonal colour structure, they managed to undermine things nicely.


All the Dada pranks and attempts to challenge the norm are feeble by comparrison because they were willed. The Impressionists simply told the truth as they saw it. Theirs was an art of innocence.

What hasn’t been sufficiently appreciated are the innovative formal and structural developments of their paintings. The advent of colour photography clouded the issue by imitating “Impressionist” effects, implying Impressionism was an art of mimesis. This isn’t true, the Impressionists re-made the world and discovered it through painting. Even the term “Impressionism” is misleading. Impressionist paintings aren’t vague sketches, they are very specific studies of things seen, ephemeral effects painted through a colour structure which allows the artist to equate everything, sky; houses; grass; even people in the same terms. Never before had painting been so rigorously equal. To find a precedent you have to go back to Vermeer. He also found colour equivalents for appearances seen in a dispassionate way, clothes and accessories equally important as people’s faces. But Vermeer painted using a camera obscura. One thing it doesn’t allow is for the eye to enter and explore surfaces which are poorly lit. You can see this in many of his paintings, it was a limitation he knew how to exploit. The Impressionists were able to enter the world of shadows and for the first time in the history of painting discovered not just colours within, but more importantly, forms. The artist who took this new discovery furthest wasn’t strictly an Impressionist, but he painted alongside Pissaro for a time and used Impressionist colour and light, painting landscapes in the open air. I am referring of course, to Paul Cézanne. The after-effects, shock waves and confusion he caused to subsequent generations of the most gifted artists is well known. Even Picasso was sent reeling.

Cézanne took the basic tenets of Impressionism and followed the consequences logically. Today we are familiar with the notion of background shapes in a painting having an identity and a positive role to play which can create new and interesting structures for paintings. An extreme instance of this are the early paintings of Mondrian, where figuration is breaking up because there isn’t a distinction between foreground and background. The subject of the painting has changed. Now, it isn’t a still life or landcsape, it’s a force field where the eye can move across the surface through painted planes or surfaces of expansion and contraction. This development in Mondrian was influenced by analytical cubism, invented by Picasso and Braque who had been looking closely at Cézanne.


Through Impressionism a new, compressed form of colour notation was developed by Cézanne. A roughly rectangular unit of colour placed next to others similarly shaped, so that the composite effect when you stand back creates light, space air and form. Previously, painting divided these elements into separate tasks. Translucent parts in a painting required a glaze to be put over an already painted area in order to create transparency. With Impressionism and Cézanne, colour density took on a new meaning for painting, opaque and translucent colours creating a different kind of space from the earlier one derived from the Renaissance, where drawing and modelling with added colour created the articulation of form and space. This new unit of colour is the precursor of Mondrian’s colour rectangles and other developments in 20th century painting.

Turner is regarded as a precursor of Impressionism. He is known to have introduced colour into shadows. Previously, painting was tonal with colour added to enable the eye to move more freely, shadow areas remained relatively colourless. Painting was about things and the space things inhabited. Colour belonged to the identity of things. However, this only applies to painting that deals with local colour, i.e. Renaissance and post-Renaissance painting. Earlier painting had used colour more simply and freely, but without achieving sculptural, three dimensional form and space.

Until the Renaissance, local colour, form and space and aerial perspective weren’t fully developed. Leonardo da Vinci first proved and demonstrated the existence of aerial perspective. He conducted experiments painting outdoors: painting a tree seen from say, fifty feet, then a hundred and so on. By doing this he captured the diffusion which occurs when things are seen from far away. But inadvertently, he also captured a moment of death. As the tree retreats into the distance it breaks up, dissolves and finally disappears. Swallowed by the atmospheric envelope which previously had cradled it in sunshine and warmth. Leonardo was one of the greatest painters of death in life.

Turner by comparison, painted the atmospheric envelope more than the objects contained within it and like Leonardo’s dissolving tree, he also acknowledged death and dissolution inherent in life. But Turner wanted something gloriously radiant as well. He wanted to infuse the whole painting with life. This meant shadows which previously were anonymous would now become coloured too. Finding equivalents for these required imagination, and a leap into the unknown. He experimented with coloured balls, the kind you might see on a Christmas tree, to help him discover more intense colour reflections for the spherical nature of sea and sky. The results were strange, some colours seemed overstated (Monet felt Turner didn’t pay enough attention to the “values”, the relation of colours to each other) and the space made by these colours belonged to the world of tonal painting, like the paintings of Claude Lorrain. Turner’s coloured shadows are incongruous because he wasn’t able to find new forms with these.


There were exceptions however, strange interiors like the ones at Petworth, whose spaces resemble a seascape in a storm, instead of a drawing room and an extraordinary recumbent nude, “Reclining Venus”, 1828 ( Tate Britain). Venus resembles a fish and the bedroom she is in, another heaving seascape. The head in this painting was painted by someone else, Turner’s companion at the time, Sir Charles Eastlake. In spite of this, the painting is I believe, Turner’s unknown masterpiece. Every colour and shape is in motion and forms swell and billow out toward the viewer, but are checked by counter movements which restore the flatness of the canvas. This painting transcends time and is one of the few Turners which can stand  comparison with Titian, Manet or Matisse.

Some of Turner’s best known maritime paintings  have a sort of respectful awareness of the viewer: ships standing to attention in the distance, waiting for the salute, before gently gliding away to the strains of Rule Britannia. This is the side which endears Turner to some and to ignore it would be missing the point. Does great art try to endear itself?

The recumbent Venus is a difficult painting, it has to be approached carefully. To begin with the viewer must stand back about ten feet from it so that the eye can scan it and see it as a whole. (It’s quite big, about eight feet wide and nearly six feet high.) At first sight it seems very strange. Where does one begin to look? The head which is very differently painted from everything else seems to jump out and dislocate itself. Then suddenly, a shape and a colour come to the rescue and contain this apparent anomaly. When this happens the head assumes a place and a role previously unseen. It becomes part of the volumetric movement created by the superbly judged colours and spacing and play of different paint densities. Now, it seems the opposite of the first impression: essential and without it everything else fades. The head punctuates and qualifies the entire picture space and the hardness and flatness is necessary, even the disjunction is essential.

For many years this painting was kept in storage, clearly the Tate don’t know what to make of it. I hope it remains on display so that the public can make up its own mind about it. A great painting doesn’t charm or please at first sight, usually it’s the opposite. This painting when first seen, can offend and repel. Need I say more?



Cézanne, View of L’Estaque, 1883-85








Mondrian, Broadway Boogie-Woogie, 1942













Turner, Reclining Venus, 1828









 By Paul Gopal-Chowdhury, 8th May 2015

paul cezanne.jpg
Turner venis.jpg
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