The most famous story about J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851) has him tied to the mast of a steam-ship for four hours during a nocturnal snow storm. This was not some melodramatic suicide attempt; it was a heroic method of observing extreme meteorological effects at close quarters, and confirmation of Turner’s credentials as the supreme artistic observer of nature. The resulting picture came with a forensically detailed title designed to allay all doubts about his devotion to nature: Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth making Signals in Shallow Water, and going by the Lead. The Author was in this Storm on the Night the Ariel left Harwich exhibited 1842. So entrenched is this episode in British folklore that in 2007 the artist Bob and Roberta Smith (the pseudonym of Patrick Brill) tried to restage it off Brighton beach using a home-made raft. Brill explained: “I am interested in Turner’s processes, and the notion of tying yourself to a mast to experience a storm at sea. It is a bit like the crucifixion.”

But was Turner really so “tied” to unmediated experience of nature? And did he, as his contemporary William Wordsworth claimed of great writers, “owe nothing but to nature and his own genius”? The mast story is almost certainly a romantic myth, designed to tease those same critics who had accused him of painting nothing but “soapsuds and whitewash”. No ship called Ariel is associated with Harwich in the 1840s, and Turner is not known to have visited the east coast at this time. Moreover, a man of any age, let alone in his late fifties, would probably not have survived such an experience. Turner most likely chose the name Ariel because of its association with Shakespeare’s Tempest – the implication being that he was a painterly Prospero, able to conjure up any kind of weather, real or imagined, at will. An episode that bids to be the apogee of bare-knuckled “painting from nature” turns out to be deeply embedded in European culture – not just literary, but artistic. Snow Storm will be exhibited alongside Jacob van Ruisdael’s Rough Sea c.1670 to illustrate how much his basic subject matter was indebted to the Dutch old masters. His monochromatic palette also recalls Ruisdael’s contemporaries Jan van Goyen and Willem van de Velde, and their works will be shown too. Further inspiration was provided by another Dutch painter, Ludolf Bakhuizen, who regularly went to sea in stormy weather in order to observe “the changes of Air and Water under these conditions”.

Turner had an unusually powerful propensity to court direct comparisons with his artistic forebears. Sometimes the results of his “imitations” can appear slightly academic and opportunistic – as in some of his highly marketable Venetian scenes that reheat Canaletto. But for the most part, he takes us on a sublime roller coaster ride in which art history, and his own place within it, is radically re-envisioned. Indeed, the vortex at the heart of Snow Storm – one of his most daring works – recalls swirling Baroque ceiling paintings, with their bright central oculus window, more than it does any previous marine painting.

Turner believed his engagement with past masters conformed to the principles laid down by the artist he most admired, the portrait painter and first president of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792). He described his student years at the RA, sitting at the great man’s feet, as “the happiest perhaps of my days”. Reynolds’s approach towards the old masters, articulated in his lectures, involved looking upon them as both models and rivals:

Study therefore the great works of the great masters, for ever. Study as nearly as you can, in the order, in the manner, and on the principles, on which they studied. Study nature attentively, but always with those masters in your company; consider them as models which you are to imitate, and at the same time as rivals with whom you are to contend.

The crucial difference came in those artists Turner chose to emulate – Dutch seventeenth-century as well as Italian – and the lowly genre in which he specialised: landscape rather than the human figure. 

The 1790s onwards were the best time since the age of Charles I in which to study the old masters in England – and this was just as well, because the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars meant that access to the continent, and to the traditional Grand Tour route (which Sir Joshua had taken), was seriously restricted. Paradoxically, those same political upheavals brought about an unprecedented movement of artworks, and many of the greatest masterpieces were sold in London by dealers and auction houses after long-running public exhibitions.

Many Englishmen (including Turner) did manage to visit Paris and some of continental Europe during a brief cessation of hostilities in 1802. The highlight was the Louvre, which in 1793 had become a public museum. It was now stuffed with looted masterpieces, and paintings were displayed according to national schools. The Louvre prompted competitive emulation on this side of the Channel, by individuals and by groups of private collectors. This led eventually to the establishment of England’s first public galleries – the Dulwich Picture Gallery (1811) and the National Gallery (1824). Detailed comparison of the respective merits of the various masters and schools was encouraged as never before.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Three Seascapes’ c.1827
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Three Seascapes c.1827

One of the most important developments occurred when some collectors of old masters, stirred by patriotism and by confidence in the present age, began to acquire works by modern British artists. In 1800 the Duke of Bridgewater, who had recently acquired an extraordinary group of Italian and French pictures auctioned off by the cash-strapped Duc d’Orleans, commissioned Turner to paint a pendant to van de Velde’s celebrated marine picture, Ships in a Stormy Sea (A Rising Gale) c.1672. They were displayed in a room with masterpieces by Poussin, Claude, Cuyp and Titian. Turner regarded Titian’s backgrounds as the “highest honour” yet paid to the art of landscape, because they were essential to the mood and action of the picture, rather than mere backdrops.

The 25-year-old artist doesn’t seem to have been in the least dismayed by the prospect of a face-off with van de Velde. With a boldness that would characterise most of Turner’s jousts with the old masters, his own canvas is about a foot larger in both dimensions – at once sabotaging the idea that it should be a matching pendant. In the Dutch painting, two sailing boats are about to pass perilously close to each other in a gale, but there is scant sense of mortal danger. The abstract geometry of the billowing sail and jutting boom on the main ship cuts through the air as cleanly and confidently as a Brancusi Bird sculpture; the two visible sailors sit effortlessly upright, like buoys. Triumph and redemption is surely at hand.

In Turner’s picture, Dutch Boats in a Gale: Fishermen Endeavouring to put their Fish on Board (Bridgewater Sea Piece) 1801, there’s a pervasive sinking feeling, as if this were the damned side of a Last Judgment. As so often in his “imitations”, the horizon line is much higher, which here pulls us closer to the waves, and makes them both more abundant and enveloping. The two ships seem on the verge of colliding, and the browny-gold moistness of the storm clouds has been absorbed by the sails of the foreground ship as if they were made of blotting paper. Turner’s sailors seem bedraggled, like so much wet laundry – and a pile of white fabric does indeed lie by the tiller. Whereas van de Velde’s rigging is an idealised abstraction, Turner’s is anthropomorphised into a gesticulating skeletal stick figure, clothed in a pale sheet: the boom is an outstretched arm with a pointing finger; the mast a spine; the flag a head. It is already a ghost ship. 

On the paintings at the Royal Academy in 1801, the critics were greatly impressed by the young artist’s “comprehensive view of nature”, though some demurred at his “careless” technique and love of “obscurity”. These were precisely the terms used by hostile critics to describe Rembrandt, of whom Turner was a great admirer. He sought to imbue his own landscapes with Rembrandtian lighting effects and drama, and he emulated his bold impasto. In a lecture on backgrounds given at the RA in his role as professor of perspective, Turner singled out Rembrandt’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Moon-light 1647, then at Stourhead: “In no picture have I seen that [same] freshness, that negative quality of shade and colour, that aerial perspective enwrapt in gloom.” 

Much as Turner admired the expressive naturalism of the Dutch “Golden Age”, he wanted his reputation to be tied eternally to that of the French-born, Rome-based painter Claude Lorrain (1604/5–1682). In his will, he asked for two of his paintings to be permanently displayed next to two Claudes in the National Gallery, a stipulation that has always been fulfilled. Claude developed a hugely influential form of ideal landscape in which classical figures and architecture are seamlessly integrated into panoramic vistas suffused by warm sunlight. He also painted elaborate views of ports, looking out to sea. During the eighteenth century, he was the height of fashion, and landscape gardeners remodelled estates in a Claudian style, often inspired by paintings in the patron’s own collection. As a young man, Turner was reportedly seen weeping tears of envious admiration before one of his Seaports.

The greatest of the National Gallery confrontations takes place between Claude’s Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba 1648 and Turner’s Dido Building Carthage: or the Rise of the Carthaginian Empire 1815, which is a foot wider and a few inches higher. Whereas Claude’s is a unified scene focused on a particular moment and journey that will have a successful end, Turner’s is split down the middle by a river that feels like a fault-line, and is full of foreboding – not just for the imminent suicide of Dido, but also for the much later destruction of Carthage by the Romans. The building site on the left bank, crowded with tiny figures, could easily be a ruined city, and the deserted buildings on the higher right side (they include the tomb of her husband) seem to be encroaching. But it is Turner’s sun that is most strikingly different – higher in the sky, scorching, burning a hole in the picture as if to prophesy its own destruction. Where Claude’s painting is single-mindedly elegiac, Turner’s is multifariously tragic. It was hailed in the press as an achievement for “all-time”.

It has been said that Turner’s humble origins – he was the son of a Covent Garden barber, with a strong cockney accent – made him want to measure himself repeatedly against the great masters, and thereby aggrandise himself by association. But the relatively low (if fast rising) status of landscape painting is probably what drove him to inscribe its history in his own works: he was giving the genre a history that it sorely lacked. The well-born Sir Joshua had tried to do something similar with portraiture, aggrandising his own portraits by filling them with learned art historical allusions. This same sort of motivation fired the Duke of Bridgewater and other aristocratic collectors of landscape painting, who saw its potential to become a modern and very British genre, and it also prompted the first volume of John Ruskin’s Modern Painters (1843).

There is a special rhetorical term to describe Turner’s strategy with the old masters, and above all with Claude: syncrisis – the bringing together for comparison and contrast of two entities with claims to greatness, whether they be writers, rulers, cities, artists or artefacts. Before Turner, syncrisis in the cultural field tended to be used when assessing writers or figurative artists. So in Turner’s time we have sustained syncrises for Homer and Virgil, Shakespeare and Milton, Michelangelo and Raphael, Canova and Thorvaldsen, Delacroix and Ingres. When Turner staged his own syncrisis with Claude in the National Gallery, it showed that landscape painting had now arrived on the world-historical stage.

The ultimate vindication of Turner’s comparative way of seeing came just over a century later, when the American abstract painter Mark Rothko (1903–1970) did to Turner something very similar to what he had done to Claude. After visiting an exhibition of late Turner at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and believing him to be a pioneer of abstract art, Rothko reputedly quipped: “This man Turner, he learnt a lot from me.” The presence of the Turner Bequest in what is now Tate Britain soon led to Rothko giving nine of his Seagram Murals, six of which were until recently on display in Tate Britain’s Clore Gallery. We should take our lead from Rothko, and imagine our cockney painter standing before the Claudes in the National Gallery, muttering wryly to himself: “This fellow Claude,’e learnt a lot from me.”