Room 4: Painters painted: the cult of the artist

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Watteau Study by Fresnoy’s Rules’ exhibited 1831
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Watteau Study by Fresnoy’s Rules exhibited 1831

Perhaps in response to developments in contemporary French painting, from about 1820 Turner produced a number of pictures dealing with the theme of artistic biography. Around the same time he started to term himself a ‘Historical Landscape’ painter, suggesting the widening range of reference and ambition that he brought to his work.

Turner’s first completed painting in this genre was the impressively large Rome, from the Vatican, showing the Renaissance artist Raphael displaying his masterpieces. Turner went on to create pictures that represented the Venetian artist Canaletto at work, the Flemish-born artist Watteau in his studio, the Dutch marine artist Van Goyen at sea, Rembrandt’s daughter, and a posthumous tribute to Bellini. His Port Ruysdael brought that master of Dutch painting to mind by the invention of a place named after him, as well as through an evocative pictorial style. Underlying these pictures is Turner’s growing sense of his own mortality, a questioning of whether he had achieved enough to merit a place alongside the predecessors he most admired. By focusing on celebrated and successful artists from the past, such pictures also implied criticism of the relatively neglected state of the arts in modern Britain.