Dazzled by the Light on the Thames; the Connections Drawn between Turner, Whistler and Monet May Be Overdone, but Tate Britain's Exhibition Will Be Spectacular
Byline: BRIAN SEWELL
A TRUTH universally acknowledged throughout my lifetime as an art historian, even as a schoolboy engrossed in Camille Mauclair's study of Turner (1947 edition), is that as a profound influence on Monet and some of his contemporaries, this grand old man of English painting was a proto-Impressionist of sorts.
"Monet," wrote Mauclair of his months in London in 1870-71, " preoccupied as he already was with enveloping atmosphere and with reflected light, received from the great Englishman lessons which certainly set him on the road to his most celebrated work."
This universal truth is, however, more elastic than any truth should be.
Monet himself both confirmed and denied it, and its strengths and weaknesses depend on the reliability of those who reported his pronouncements and the years in which he uttered them - "All his life Monet repeated that Turner was a bad painter," said one, "Turner's later pictures ... were the special objects of his admiration," said another, the ambivalence of his respect for the old man perfectly expressed in an observation made when he too was old, in 1918, to the art dealer Rene Gimpel, "At one point I greatly liked Turner, but today I like him much less - he did not draw enough with colour and he used too much of it. I have studied him closely."
To this I am inclined to respond with "not closely enough", for if anything is to be said of Turner in his maturity it is that he did draw in colour and that in doing so demonstrated his awareness of contemporary developments in the science of optics, just as in painting in colour he was aware of and in dispute with Goethe and his theories on the subject. With such an error of observation we must question the authoritative statements of anyone who claims to know beyond argument precisely what Monet persuaded himself that he could see in Turner's work over the half century or so that he was exposed to it or inclined to offer comment.
At Tate Britain a new exhibition opening next week examines the relationship of Turner and Monet, tossing in Whistler for good measure as a link between them in age, style and geography. When Turner died in 1851, Whistler was 17 and Monet 11; neither, the one in America, the other in France, had met or knew anything of the old maestro.
In 1856, after a period at West Point Military Academy and other vicissitudes, Whistler became an art student in Paris under the academic tutelage of Charles Gleyre, and in this year too, or perhaps 1857, the life of Monet, living in Le Havre, was changed by his discovering Boudin painting on the beach. We presume that Monet and Whistler met a decade or so later, at some time between 1865 and 1867, both by then young men of some reputation, Whistler long settled in London, Monet in Paris. We know nothing of the circumstances of this encounter, the how, the when, the where or why, and the research published in the exhibition's weighty catalogue is couched in the uncertainties of "would have been ... would have met ... would have realised ... it is likely that ...
probably ..." and most suspect of all, the "undoubtedly" that so often supports assertion and is superfluous in matters of fact. My confidence in one writer was utterly undermined by her declaring that when Ruskin attacked Whistler as a "cockney" and a "coxcomb" these words were doubly insulting as "lewd references to the male sexual organ"; they have no such etymology, and even if they had, I doubt if Ruskin, squeamish about sex and too delicate for his own good, would have sullied his tongue with the double-entendre.
THE exhibition will be a familiar feast to the eye and a commercially sensible idea, for Monet always guarantees a horde of visitors, but the attempt to prove the unprovable with it swiftly grows wearisome. It matters not at all that "an international team of curators and academics has delved into archives, peered through magnifying glasses and diverged from better-travelled paths to look at contextual issues" (their claim, not my mockery), the facts are too few, the coincidences do not coincide and the Bed of Procrustes should never be used as an academic tool; Whistler's response to Turner was in broad terms and Monet's was even broader, his facture even more distinct. …