Room 2: Atmosphere Atmosphere

Turner Monet Twombly Later Paintings exhibition banner

When Turner died in 1851 he left several unfinished paintings in his studio. In the wake of impressionism these paintings have been appreciated as highly as his finished works. These incomplete works suggest that before anything else Turner wanted to establish an atmosphere. ‘Atmosphere is my style,’ he claimed, and ‘indistinctness is my fault’.

In The Thames above Waterloo Bridge c.1830–5, Turner shrouds the river in a blanket of pollution, with chimneys belching out smoke. In their late works, both Turner and Monet played with simultaneously obscuring and revealing the image. In Turner’s unfinished view of Venice with the Salute c.1840–5, the cityscape can only just be made out as it emerges from an all-enveloping luminous haze. On the other hand, Waterloo Bridge in Monet’s painting of 1902 is on the verge of disappearing from sight completely into the denseLondon fog. Monet painted London in the winter specifically to capture the visual effects of the famously polluted air. ‘The motif is unimportant to me, what I want to reproduce is what stands between the motif and me,’ Monet allegedly said when interviewed in 1895.

Twombly’s Paesaggio 1986, like Monet’s Morning on the Seine, Giverny 1897, contrasts woodland and water and explores effects of light. Twombly too was interested in what might be called weather effects. In his Orpheus of 1979, the mist obscures the name of the eponymous hero who, in the Orphic myth, travelled to the underworld to retrieve his wife Eurydice, who is perhaps also alluded to here by the small letters ‘eu’. As with the work of Monet and Turner, Twombly’s paintings rely on materiality to create an atmosphere and a sense of mystery. It is this quality that makes Turner and Monet so modern, and that looks forward to Twombly.