As arguably Britain's greatest painter Joseph Mallord William Turner's humble beginnings were not auspicious. His father, William Turner, was a barber, originally from Devon. His mother, Mary Marshall, came from a family of butchers and ended her life in the madhouse. Their home was Maiden Lane, a dark alley between the Strand and Covent Garden. Filled with muck from the market and the backwash from rudimentary sewers, its name was derived from the fact that it was a favoured hunt of prostitutes.
The young Turner showed a precocious talent for drawing and his father was soon buttonholing his customers, claiming "my son, sir, is going to be a painter." Displaying the boy's drawings in his shop, he sold them for three shillings each. By the time Turner was twelve, he was well aware of his talent, was making money from his work, and spending much of his time down by the river studying boats and their rigging. From the beginning he was ambitious, extremely tidy and a hard worker. When one of Turner senior's clients died leaving him a small legacy, he apprenticed his son to an architectural draughtsman. Short of stature, with a rough London accent that he never lost, and rather unprepossessing looks, Turner managed, nevertheless, to be accepted in 1789, at the age of fourteen, into the Royal Academy Schools, then at Somerset House. It was to be the beginning of a life-long association with the Academy where, in 1802, he would become an RA and, in 1807, Professor of Perspective.
There is a tendency to see Turner as a unique genius, the first great "modern" painter, which, indeed, in many ways he was, and to interpret much of what happened later in painting as his legacy. But from the first he was determined to pit himself against the greats of the past by entering into direct competition with artists he considered talented enough to be worthy rivals to his growing fame. He set out to build his reputation as an oil painter by throwing down a gauntlet to the old masters and producing works that could be displayed alongside theirs. There was something defiantly pugilistic in his approach. He quite simply wanted to be the best. He considered his main inspiration and rival to be the seventeenth-century landscape French painter Claude Lorraine. "Pure as Italian air, calm, beautiful and serene springs forward the works", he once said admiringly, "and with them the name of Claude Lorraine". Asked why he had burst into tears in front of Claude's The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba he answered: "Because I shall never be able to paint anything like that picture".
Turner was consciously staking a claim among the immortals. He did not simply want to be as good as them, he wanted to surpass them. He understood that the problem of modern art lay in the deepening of self-consciousness and the weight of the intimidating legacy of the past; a baton that would, later, be taken up again by Picasso and Francis Bacon in his re-workings of Vel´zquez.
This exhibition gives an unprecedented opportunity to see Turner's works alongside an array of masterpieces not only by Claude, but Canaletto, Titian, Aelbert Cuyp, Poussin, Rembrandt, Reubens, Jacob van Ruisdeal, Willem van de Velde, Veronsese, Watteau, Constable and R.P. Bonnington, and to understand his paintings as both acts of homage to these great masters, as well as a sophisticated form of art criticism. As one walks around there is a tendency to award points. Seven, say, to Poussin's Winter or The Deluge, 1660-4 but nine to Turner's dynamic painting of 1805, with its sweeping diagonals and bravura energy, on the same subject. Whereas when it comes to Turner's 1803 painting of the Holy Family modelled on Titian's The Virgin and Child in a Landscape with Tobias and the Angel, 1535-40 with its luminous Venetian reds and blues, one contemporary critic said of Turner's murky brown version that he had "spoilt a very fine landscape by very bad figures", whilst another simply dismissed it as "unworthy of his talents".
It could be argued that when it comes to the figure, Turner comes off worst. His painting Jessica 1830, possibly inspired by Rembrandt's tender and beautiful Girl at a Window, 1645, was described in the Morning Chronicle, 3 May 1830, as "a lady getting out of a large mustard-pot" because of the insistent passages of brilliant yellow. While William Wordsworth commented that "It looks to me as if the painter had indulged in raw liver until he was very unwell".
But turn to Turner's seascapes and views of Venice and they are, in the true meaning of the word, sublime. Where Canaletto describes Venice in all its precise architectural detail, Turner, in his Depositing of John Bellini's Three Pictures in La Chiesa Redentore, Venice 1841, renders it as a shimmering dream, closer to the magical visions conjured in Calvino's Invisible Cities. While Claude gives us a sense of an important imperial trading hub in Seaport at Sunset, 1639, Turner, in his brazen borrowing for his own Regulus, 1828, creates, with his smeared white, blinding sun, something other worldly and pantheistic.
Turner also pitted himself against his contemporaries such as Thomas Girtin and Richard Parkes Bonnington. His answer to Bonnington's French Coast with Fishermen, 1826, was Calais Sands, Low Water, Poissards Collecting Bait, 1830. With its fisherwomen, their skirts tucked up around their knees, working on the wide wet sands beneath a setting sun, it is, quite simply, sublime and secures Turner's reputation as one of the greatest landscape painters of all time.
Turner and the Masters at Tate Britain until 31 January 2010