The Founding Father

J. M. W. Turner: A Critical Biography

by Jack Lindsay
New York Graphic Society, 288 pp., $12.50

The Sunset Ship: The Poems of J. M. W. Turner

edited, with an essay and Jack Lindsay
Distributed by the New York Graphic Society, 134 pp., $5.50


by John Rothenstein and Martin Butlin
Braziller, 236 pp., $20.00

Turner: Imagination and Reality

by Lawrence Gowing
Museum of Modern Art, 72 pp., $4.95

Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko; drawing by David Levine

A Turner exhibition is held at the Museum of Modern Art. Monroe Wheeler refers to “exceptional productions of other periods of art history in which the modern spirit happened to be foreshadowed or by which modern artists have been influenced”; Lawrence Gowing writes that “now we find that a kind of painting, which is of vital concern to us, was anticipated by Turner”; Sir John Rothenstein and Martin Butlin talk of his “influential impact” in recent years; Jack Lindsay says that “in his work modern art was fully and definitely born.” No one can be in any doubt as to the reason for the present-day vogue for Turner, though many people are obviously not very happy that it has taken this form, and a close study of the works themselves and the various books under consideration will not really help them very much: Indeed only Lawrence Gowing makes any serious attempt to explain just what Turner is assumed to have anticipated. But the history of artistic revivals is riddled with such anomalies—art historians love to justify their favorite painters of the past by seeing in (or reading into) them some foreshadowing of the future: A cleaned Velázquez in the London National Gallery is held to be of greater value because it “anticipates” Manet, and last year’s exhibition of the brothers Guardi in Venice was full of people murmuring “Impressionism” or even “Cézanne” in front of any couple of square inches of loosely painted still life. Similarly artists themselves and their interpreters, however bold, always seem to be trying, like nineteenth-century parvenus, to equip themselves with respectable ancestors. The mechanism is not altogether clear, but it would appear not so much that they were actually influenced by such earlier artists (as Turner was by Claude and the Dutch seventeenth-century marine painters) as that—in their relative isolation from a broad, well-informed public—they needed the reassurance of feeling that someone else had once done something vaguely similar. To the historian, even to the regular gallery visitor who tries to avoid the vagaries of fashion, it is all rather irritating: A recent editorial in The Burlington Magazine deplored the fact that certain painters, such as Vermeer and Louis Le Nain, had been rediscovered at the “wrong” time, by critics who envisaged them as pioneers in the realist battles being waged in mid-nineteenth century France. Now, it is assumed, we know better and can appreciate these painters for what they really were: the forerunners of our own alienation. In fact, ever since Renaissance artists rediscovered classical antiquity, the past has always been made meaningful by reference to the present, and if it was not now fashionable to believe that Turner had anticipated Rothko, we would probably still be thinking that he was in some way responsible for Impressionism—despite the indignant denials of the French.

TURNER HAS ANOTHER APPEAL. He is the first painter to meet with…

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