Paintings of the Week

Last year I wrote a radio serial about art and art forgery called The Art of Deception, which was broadcast in 5 x 15 minute episodes on BBC Radio 4;  this year, I’ve just been commissioned to write the sequel. 

This is a great opportunity to develop the characters, and work with the same actors. And also a chance to immerse  myself, again, in the wonderful world of great art.  This is by way of contrast to my day job, which means immersing myself in all things science fiction – aliens, parallel dimensions and the like. 

So while I’m doing the research, I thought I’d start up this new regular item on Debatable Spaces. Every Sunday, I’ll look at two paintings that I love.  I might compare and contrast; I might talk about the artist; I might just show the damn things on the grounds that a picture is worth a thousand words.

The first two paintings have always been favourites of mine, and I saw them first when they were hanging side by side in the National Gallery. They are Claude Lorrain’s Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba; and  J.M.W Turner’s Dido Buildilng Carthage.

The two paintings are closely linked; because (as I learned at a recent Tate Britain exhibition) in his youth Turner was an arrogant and absurdly competitive man who set himself the task of emulating and excelling the achievements of all the greats.  In this he had limited success. He painted in the style of Watteau,   extremely badly.  His attempt to paint in the style of Rembrandt was frankly embarrassing.  He took on Poussin at his own game, and emerged with discredit.  But he also created virtual copies of paintings by landscape artists like William Van Der Velde with (in my view) considerable success.

And it was his mimicry of Claude Lorrain (1600-1662),  often just called Claude for reasons I’ve never fathomed, that proved most fruitful. Claude was a great painter of landscape, and a great painter of light; and that proved to be Turner’s genius.  Many of Turner’s paintings are marred by ineptly drawn people (sorry! but they’re crap!) but he was the genius of light. And this comparison between  Claude and Turner showed how Turner emulated, but did not copy. 

Turner loved Dido Building Carthage so much he asked that he be wrapped in the canvas when he was buried – an arrogant and stupid idea that was typical of the man. (Luckily, he was ignored.)  It shows the founding of the Carthaginian Empire by Dido, daughter King of Tyre.  It needs to be seen in its full glory of course; but here’s a glimpse of both paintings.

Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba by Claude Lorrain

Dido Building Carthage by J.M.W.Turner

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