Joseph Mallord William Turner, 'Moonlight, a Study at Millbank' exhibited 1797

Joseph Mallord William Turner
Moonlight, a Study at Millbank exhibited 1797
Oil on wood
support: 314 x 403 mm frame: 507 x 602 x 115 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

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It is impossible to be an artist without engaging with the art of the past; but in the case of Turner that engagement was unusually public, complicated and prolonged.  Turner never tired of matching his talents against the ‘masters’ of the past and the present. In the process he fashioned a type of landscape painting that both strove to be true to nature, and self-consciously tested the conventions of making art.

This exhibition explores how Turner engaged with different artistic traditions, and tried to ensure that he, too, would be remembered as a ‘master’. This opening section shows how Turner’s conventional training as an architectural draughtsman and at the Royal Academy’s drawing schools from 1789 laid the foundations of his enormous ambition. It was here that he learnt his craft, and the all-important lesson that artists were meant to aspire to greatness by copying, then trying to rival, those who had come before.

Turner’s growing ambitions are apparent in the pictures he created in the later 1790s. He wanted to emulate the elevated poetry of classical landscape painting and the powerful naturalism of the seventeenth-century Dutch masters. These pictures show, too, that he had absorbed the lessons of the most adventurous recent art.