Joseph Mallord William Turner, 'Holy Family' exhibited 1803

Joseph Mallord William Turner
Holy Family exhibited 1803
Oil on canvas
support: 1022 x 1416 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

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Turner’s engagement with the Northern European art tradition was central to the formation of his artistic identity. During the nineteenth century, British artists increasingly looked to the technical dexterity and naturalism of Dutch and Flemish painting as a model for their own attempts to depict their native scenery. This was partly a response to the demands of the market, as skilfully rendered, illusionistic Northern canvases were highly prized by collectors and connoisseurs. Although Grand Style Italian works held a higher status within the academic hierarchy, smaller Netherlandish images, and their undemanding subject matter, were better suited for private collections.

The early years of the nineteenth century also witnessed a vogue for paintings of everyday life, by artists such as Rembrandt and David Teniers, whose example was emulated by Turner’s contemporary David Wilkie with great critical (and financial) success. Determined not to miss an opportunity, Turner staged a number of forays into genre painting, focusing on precise detail, and adopting the muted palette associated with the seventeenth-century Dutch masters.