32 episodes

Audio guide to thirty-two works from the Turner to Monet: triumph of Landscape exhibition shown at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 14 July – 16 October 2006.

National Gallery of Australia | Audio Tour | Turner to Monet: the triumph of landscape National Gallery of Australia

    • Visual Arts

Audio guide to thirty-two works from the Turner to Monet: triumph of Landscape exhibition shown at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 14 July – 16 October 2006.

    Camille COROT, Bridge on the Saône River at Mâcon [also known as Village on the riverbank [Le Village au bord de la rivière]] 1834

    Camille COROT, Bridge on the Saône River at Mâcon [also known as Village on the riverbank [Le Village au bord de la rivière]] 1834

    Corot was modest and chaste. He never married, in company was nearly always overlooked, the Salon ‘treated him rudely,’ and the only painting by him to enter the Luxembourg Museum was ‘bought almost accidentally by the state in 1851’.1Yet the great Charles Baudelaire was one of many who admired the qualities of simplicity and sureness in Corot’s art and personality – traits that were at the opposite extreme to Baudelaire’s flamboyance. Corot, he wrote, exerted complete control over his compositions, guaranteeing that every element would be well seen, well observed, well understood and well imagined.2

    In Bridge on the Saône River at Mâcon the paint has been laid on directly and unaffectedly. This gives the small work a deceptive look of Impressionism. With their festive and casual appearance, Impressionist paintings were to make a holiday of looking. But Corot’s washerwomen on the river bank are not Monet’s or Manet’s holidaymakers lolling about and enjoying the sun. Likewise, Corot in front of nature seems a disciplinarian rather than a sensualist. The date 1834 is not at all early for an outdoor sketch – which this possibly is – yet it does seem early for such a masterly exercise in facing down nature for the sake of form.

    Nature has here been translated by rule and measure, scale and calculation. One takes pleasure in the composition of four symmetrical rectangles and repeated arcs, the enveloping, sand-coloured light and well-managed paint textures. Selective accents of shape, tone and texture stand out by virtue of their difference. Paint strokes that seem spontaneous are, in fact, controlled. The ground from mid-way has been fastened down in solid, creamy earth colours. Above and to the sides, the semi-transparent blues and greens of sky, foliage and water vaporise against the underlying earth colours. Rough against smooth, a small area of mottled dabs describes shallow water near the bank and, on the other side of the picture, striations of green paint across the grain of the support ruffle the foliage as if simulating a breeze.

    Visual sensation had a place when it suited Corot’s purpose. In memorable early paintings he downplayed the figurative subject through using lively visual effects. The light in a canvas featuring a woman prone on the grass goes past her to a glowing clay bank in the middle distance.3 The gleaming but otherwise meaningless lump of wet clay takes centre stage, successfully eclipsing the woman. In another work a man on horseback rides away from us; the eye is captured less by the figure, painted grey against grey, than by the sunlight jolting on the uneven bridle path this side of the figure.4 A remarkable landscape sketch is captured by a shapeless black shadow that leaps across the sunburnt fields.5 The irresolution between sketchiness and precise form in Bridge on the Saône River at Mâcon has the same liberating effect, what Corot’s detractors called lack of finish and Baudelaire his ‘awkwardness’. Where lesser artists finished off a work of art, the end for Corot was to open it.

    Mary Eagle

    1 Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner, Romanticism and Realism: the mythology of nineteenth century art, London: Faber, 1984, p. 230.

    2 Charles Baudelaire, ‘The Salon of 1845’, trans. Jonathan Mayne, Art in Paris 1845–1862: salons and other exhibitions reviewed by Charles Baudelaire, London: Phaidon, 1965, p. 24.

    3 The Forest of Fontainebleau, 1834, National Gallery of Art, Washington – The Chester Dale Collection.

    4 A View Near Volterra 1838, National Gallery of Art, Washington – The Chester Dale Collection.

    5 Le Petit Chaville, near Ville-d’Avra c. 1823, The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology – Bequeathed by Frank Hindley Smith, 1939.

    • 1 min
    J M W TURNER, Waves breaking against the wind c.1835

    J M W TURNER, Waves breaking against the wind c.1835

    By the early 1830s Turner was a regular visitor to the seaside town of Margate, on the eastern tip of the county of Kent, about seventy miles downriver from London. Turner’s first introduction to Margate came in the 1790s, when the place was essentially just a small fishing town, but it had since become a bustling resort that Londoners could reach effortlessly by steamboat in half a day. The geographic setting is remarkable, benefiting from a magnificently open prospect over the sea to the north and east, which allegedly induced Turner to claim that the skies in this area were among the loveliest in Europe. In addition to this natural prospect, the attractions of Margate were somewhat unorthodox for Turner, stemming from his clandestine relationship with Sophia Caroline Booth (1798–1875), a young widow, who was initially his landlady and subsequently his mistress and muse.

    From the windows of Mrs Booth’s lodging-house, near the harbour quay, Turner was able to watch the arrival and departure of the London steamers, a couple of which formed the subject of a painting he displayed at the Royal Academy in 1840 Rockets and blue lights (close at hand) to warn steamboats of shoal water.1 The basic composition of that work was anticipated by a study, Waves breaking on a lee shore c. 1840, which is a pair to the work exhibited here.2The studies focus on the shore on either side of Margate harbour; in this case looking back from the west to the light tower at the end of the protective outer wall, which is created as a dull silhouette by the later application of a lighter area of whitish grey paint around it. As in even his earliest depictions of the sea, Turner sought to give his painted representation dramatic textures that replicate, and seemingly act as a substitute for, the movement of water.

    Both of the Margate studies are painted with such expressive vigour that it has generally been assumed they may have been direct observations of the rolling sea, capturing the surge of the waves as they splay upwards into flying crests, before crashing on the beach. Though Turner evidently did make plein air studies in pencil and watercolour at Margate, the impracticalities of working in oils, while witnessing such fast-changing weather conditions, make it unlikely that this picture would have been painted in the same way. This makes the apparent spontaneity and directness of his images all the more impressive, especially his vivid attempts to provide an impression of the sea in motion, at a time before the introduction of photography enabled artists greater opportunity to dissect the underlying principles of movement more precisely.3]

    Ian Warrell

    1 Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The paintings of J.M.W. Turner, rev. edn, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984, cat. 387; collection of Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown.

    2 Butlin and Joll, cat. 458, collection of the Tate; Ian Warrell (ed.), J.M.W. Turner, Washington: National Gallery of Art, 2007, cat. 133, where re-dated from c. 1835 to c. 1840.

    3 For a more qualified appraisal of Turner’s depictions of the sea, see Christiana Payne, Where the sea meets the land. Artists on the coast in nineteenth-century Britain, Bristol: Sansom & Co., 2007, p. 49, notes 31, 60.

    • 1 min
    Isaac JENNER, Cape Chudleigh, Coast of Labrador 1893, reworked 1895

    Isaac JENNER, Cape Chudleigh, Coast of Labrador 1893, reworked 1895

    A large, ambitious scene of arctic exploration, imagined fifty years after the event and half a world away, seems an unlikely Australian project. Jenner, a self-taught English immigrant painter, tried to establish a cultivated artistic climate in Queensland at the end of the nineteenth century. Such grand history paintings, employing all the stratagems of the Sublime, would make the artist’s reputation unassailable, he thought, as well as serving another purpose, that of elevating public taste.

    His subject was Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition of 1845, to find the fabled Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The venture fascinated the public, writers, and the press for decades; the British government, prodded by Lady Franklin, sent thirty-two expeditions to find the vanished explorers, Swinburne wrote a long poem in 1860, and Jules Verne published two novels inspired by the topic in the 1870s. Reports of cannibalism among survivors kept the story alive and scandalous.

    Jenner remembered arctic scenery and details from a journey taken in his youth. He sailed in the early 1850s, he said, on ‘a voyage to Lapland, Nova Zembla and Spitzbergen’.1At the age of eighteen in 1855, Jenner joined the Royal Navy for a decade, then retired to his birthplace, Brighton, to become an artist. Unhappy with his prospects as a marine and genre painter there, he emigrated with his large family to Brisbane in 1863. En route he witnessed the effects of Krakatoa’s eruption, another instance of Nature’s grand and sublime spectacles.

    For his modern history painting Cape Chudleigh, Coast of Labrador, Jenner painted icebergs in Labrador, populated by hundreds of great auks – large, penguin-like birds, hunted to extinction in the 1840s. The whole is lit by a full moon under a cloudy sky. Apart from icy white and blue for freezing water, sea and sky, atmosphere and rocks are rendered in smoky brown and grey, with red reflected from the ship on fire behind an iceberg.2

    The ghostly theatre of Franklin’s fatal voyage is accentuated by Jenner’s spectral depiction of translucent ice, a disappearing mountain and bizarre spectating birds, scattered like the ill-fated crew through the sea and absent land. Jenner’s invisible hero, Franklin, was linked closely to colonial Australia’s brief history: he accompanied Matthew Flinders on the Investigator’s initial circumnavigation of the continent in 1801–04, and served as Governor of Tasmania from 1836 to 1843.

    Nonetheless, the artist’s extravagant vision of the voyage was profoundly unfashionable. The extremes of the Sublime, especially delight in terror and heightened emotions, had dissipated their effect by the end of the century, while unsuccessful English explorers no longer caught the imagination of poets and engravers. European aesthetic manners and themes were replaced in Australia by the local and immediate paintings of the Heidelberg school.3 Jenner was triply unfortunate, in that his subject and style were no longer appreciated, and any audience was sparse. Nonetheless, he ensured some posterity by reworking and donating this large canvas to the infant Queensland National Art Gallery upon its opening in 1895.

    Christine Dixon

    1 Margaret Maynard, ‘Jenner, Isaac Walter (1837–1902)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, online edition, viewed November 2007, adb.online.anu.edu.au.

    2 Gavin Fry, Bronwyn Mahoney, Bettina MacAulay, Isaac Walter Jenner, Sydney: Beagle Press, 1994, p. 34.

    3 See Glen R. Cooke, Catalogue worksheet for Acc. number 1:0014, Queensland Art Galle

    • 2 min
    Jules BASTIEN-LEPAGE, Snow effect, Damvillers [Effet de neige, Damvillers] c.1882

    Jules BASTIEN-LEPAGE, Snow effect, Damvillers [Effet de neige, Damvillers] c.1882

    painting, oil on canvas, 43.0 (h) x 53.0 (w) cm, Museum purchase, Grover A. Magnin Bequest Fund.

    • 1 min
    Georges SEURAT, Lucerne, Saint-Denis [La Luzerne, Saint-Denis] 1885

    Georges SEURAT, Lucerne, Saint-Denis [La Luzerne, Saint-Denis] 1885

    Here we see a field of lucerne, the green crop infiltrated by red poppies. Along the skyline is strung a series of pale sheds and outbuildings under a silvery sky. In the distance is Saint-Denis, a suburb ten kilometres north of central Paris, which was industrialising rapidly in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The painting has a very high horizon line: Seurat depicts the plants as eighty per cent of the canvas. On the right against the sky is a small tree, and in the foreground a darker mass results from the shadow cast by a large tree behind the artist and the viewer.

    The luscious intensity of Seurat’s paintings is achieved by pure colour and his application of paint in small, organised strokes. The colour wheel was first elaborated by the chemist Chevreul in 1839, with red, blue and yellow being primary, and the mixtures violet, green and orange secondary colours. Each resulting hue can be lightened or darkened by white or black. Colour theory is based on the spectator’s changing perceptions, each colour being affected by surrounding ones. Instead of pre-mixing paints, Divisionist or Neo-Impressionist artists like Seurat placed patches of pure colour alongside each other, so that the eye would blend them.

    In Lucerne, Saint-Denis the bright green of the lucerne is produced by Seurat’s short, straight strokes of blue and yellow, criss-crossed to produce the animated field. Joyous interruptions of red, white and pink occur when flowers emerge from the crop. The shade from the tree in the right front is produced by darker blue, with less yellow. Beyond the fence, paintstrokes become horizontal, calming the view and lightening in tone towards the distant horizon and sky.

    Seurat employs these radical strategies to produce an all-over effect, so characteristic of art after the first Impressionist experiments in the 1860s and 1870s. There is no story to tell here, no incident to draw conclusions from, only the reproduction of visual effects as perceived by the artist. The nature of beauty has changed, as the painter makes new and different choices of subject and technique, so that the content and meaning of art are transformed.

    Christine Dixon

    • 2 min
    Paul CÉZANNE, Viaduct at l'Estaque [Le viaduct à l'Estaque] 1882

    Paul CÉZANNE, Viaduct at l'Estaque [Le viaduct à l'Estaque] 1882

    L’Estaque, a fishing village on the French coast of the Mediterranean, was a place that Cézanne visited often in the 1870s and 1880s. Why, amongst more picturesque features such as blue sea and a pretty village of ochre stone and red tiles, did the artist address such a difficult and unappealing prospect as this? A viaduct is only an overland passage between more dramatic features – under mountains or cliffs, through a valley or over a river far below – and this bridge for the railway track has none of the elegantly classical appeal of Corot’s Roman arches. Indeed, the viaduct is barely noticeable: it sits in the lowest band of the painting, the main horizontal of the composition. Perhaps it was, as always, simply because he could. The nature of beauty itself was changing as the century continued, from gentle to hard, from simple, lush and historic to complex, spare and modern. For Cézanne, eternal verities became mutable, and reality was filled with infinite possibilities.

    During February and March 1882 Pierre-Auguste Renoir, a much more luscious painter than the austere Cézanne, paid a visit to his contemporary at l’Estaque while en route from Italy to Paris. They painted the same scene, but the two resulting landscapes could not differ more, considering they were executed side by side.1 Johnson describes Cézanne’s strategies on the canvas:

    The flatness of the effect, accentuated by repetition of the receding and advancing color and tone values may, on first impression, bear some resemblance to tapestry design; but this quality is denied by the special depth and volume and solidity of the forms which Cézanne achieves … He has piled the planes up vertically and has silhouetted distant hills instead of allowing them to dissolve in air and space.2

    The contest between fact and fiction, which underlies landscape painting in the nineteenth century, is seen plainly here, in the choices that Cézanne makes. He understands that the horizontal railway lines below the cliffs undermine the vertical and diagonal slopes of the mountains. The dizzying stacks of rock, made of parallel hatched strokes of paint, communicate insecurity rather than the permanence of stone and mountains. The close-up, frontal encounter reinforces the dominance of the artist’s view. It is the implied struggle between doubt and certainty that makes Cézanne so modern.

    Christine Dixon

    1 John Rewald, The paintings of Paul Cézanne: a catalogue raisonné, vol. 1, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996, cat. 441, p. 297; the other canvas is Renoir’s Crags at l’Estaque, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

    2 Ellen H. Johnson, ‘Cézanne and a pine tree: Viaduct at l’Estaque, a footnote’, Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin, vol. 21, no. 1, Fall, 1963, pp. 24–8, quoted in Rewald, p. 297.

    • 1 min

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