Illuminated initial T

he exhibition on Rubenism opening in Brussels in 2014 and at the RA in 2015 includes Turner’s Forest of Bere (1808). This is surprising, as he is not popularly known as a follower of Rubens, as was his unfriendly rival, James Ward RA. In 1802 at the Louvre Turner criticised a Rubens landscape “the sun ill-judged and misapplied … one continual glare of colour and absurdities when investigated by scale of Nature, but captivating.” However in time Turner became more Rubenist, admiring also Van Dyck and Watteau. According to A.G.H. Bachrach, Rubens became Turner’s model for handling the three primaries and for using white (the last illustrated by his Watteau Study in 1831).

In his “Backgrounds” lecture of 1811 Turner wrote

Rubens, Master of evry power of handicraft and mechanical excellence, from the lily of the field to animated nature, disdained to hide, but threw around his tints like a bunch of flowers. Such is the impression in his Fete in the Louvre, wholly without shadow compar’d to Rembrandt’s mode, obtaining everything by primitive colour, form and execution, and so abundantly supplied by the versatility of his genius with forms and lines, could not be happy with the bare simplicity of pastoral scenery or the immutable laws of nature’s light and shade, feeling no compunction in making the sun and full moon as in the celebrated picture of the Landscape with the Waggon, or introducing the luminary in the Tournament, while all the figures in the foreground are lighted in different directions. These trifles about light are so perhaps in Historical compositions, but in Landscape they are inadmissible and become absurdities destroying the simplicity, the truth, the eauty of pastoral nature in whose pursuit he always appears lavish of his powers. Full of colour, the rapidity of his pencil bears down all before it in multitudes of forms, not the wild incursions full of Grandeur as Salvator Rosa, but [the] swampy vernality of the Low Countries. (Ziff 145-46).

The examples taken are mostly from pictures in the Louvre seen in 1802, and this was written when Turner was in his classical phase and in part echoing Reynolds, and so these remarks do not necessarily reflect what he thought later. In earlier lectures on perspective he followed Kirby in rejecting strict rules (“any such trammel upon painting”), though at that time recommended the perspective of Poussin over that of Rubens. However he wrote, “Two masters, Poussin and Rubens, will be sufficient to show the different properties of lines in parallel and angular perspective. In the pictures of the former, a continual restraint to time, place, introductory, artificial and local arrangements appear; in the last scarcely any …[in his] ingenious confusion of extraordinary powers” (Davies 43, 69).

Turner argued from Rubens’ practice and I have argued from Turner’s practice that he changed in the 1820s, if one compares his versions of the Claude at Petworth of 1814 and 1828 (on the influence of Watteau on Turner, see Whittingham). However in 1829 at a dinner at Samuel Rogers’ house Turner “full of banter as usual, but with great good humour … broke out, to the annoyance of all, against the landscapes of Rubens. There was no arguing with him. His violence was just inverse to the weakness of his position …” (Ziff, p.130). His objection to aspects of Rubens’ landscapes such as a perceived lack of naturalism and unconvincing lighting (rather rich coming from the late Turner?) does not mean that he learnt nothing from the way Rubens handled paint, colour and composition. I suggest that the way that the background is painted in Rubens’ landscape in the Wallace Collection has echoes in some of Turner’s watercolours to illustrate Whitaker’s Richmondshire (c.1816-21).

James Hamilton has called Turner’s Raby Castle of 1818 as “perhaps the greatest Rubens that Rubens never painted”, suggesting that Turner was inspired by his visit to Belgium the year before (which is possible, whether or not he could have seen any landscapes by Rubens there). A notable Rubens landscape is at the Wallace Collection. Of this Jennifer Fletcher wrote: “a shaft of light shines into the picture from the front, suggesting to us that the landscape space begins before it actually appears in the painting.” She adds that Constable “learnt more from Rubens than from any other painter.” The conventional emphasis on Turner’s debt to Claude disguises the fact that artists such as Rubens, Rembrandt and Watteau exerted a more vital influence in the innnovative latter half of his career. Although Turner's debt to Rembrandt is never doubted, in some ways his affinity with Rubens was greater — notably in the consistently high tonality and warmth of colour in his later works.


Bachrach, A.G.H. “Rubens.” The Oxford companion to J.M.W. Turner . Ed. Evelyn Joll, Martin Butlin and Luke Herrmann. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001

Davies, Maurice. Turner as professor: the artist and linear perspective. London: Tate Gallery, 1992.

Whittingham , Selby. "What You Will; or some notes regarding the influence of Watteau on Turner and other British Artists (1)." Turner Studies 5.1 (Summer 1985): 2-3.

Ziff, Jerrold. “'Backgrounds, Introduction of Architecture and Landscape': A Lecture by J. M. W. Turner.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 26.1/2 (1963): 124-47.

Painting JWM Turner

Created 23 January 2015