Mountain Man

J M W Turner, 'The Blue Rigi, Sunrise', 1842. (Watercolour) Collection: The Tate

“Atmosphere is my style”

Between 1802 and 1844, the English painter and watercolourist J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) visited Switzerland several times in search of spectacular motifs and the interplay between light and weather conditions, lakes and mountains. 

The beautiful city of Lucerne was a particularly favourite destination, and he visited annually between 1841 and 1844. Here he created some of his most celebrated works, capturing the ethereal environment with the same keen observer’s eye as he did on his many travels throughout Europe.

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Lucerne Art Society, which had its beginnings in the very years Turner was a visitor, the Kunstmuseum Luzern (‘Kunst’ is German for art), of which the Art Society is the main sponsor, has opened Turner: The Sea and the Alps, the most significant presentation of the artist’s work in Switzerland in more than a generation. 

The exhibition is the first collaboration between the Kunstmuseum Luzern and Tate Britain, which holds the Turner Bequest comprising some 30,000 works on paper, 300 oil paintings and 280 sketchbooks. The exhibition of almost a hundred works includes further loans from the UK and Europe.

Just as his contemporary Constable captured the quiet serenity of the English countryside, Turner expressed the dramatic power of Alpine landscapes. He was one of the first artists to depict weather phenomena as realistically as possible. 

The exhibition also includes seascapes (depicting Channel crossings to the continent), city scenes and skyscapes from across Europe, all expressing the 19th century ideologies of Romanticism, in particular the notion of the sublime. 

The exhibition also captures the period in which Turner produced the works, when the art world was just beginning to discover Switzerland and tourism had its beginnings. This would have a huge impact on Lucerne, as visitors sought encounter with the beautiful natural surroundings, the poet Shelley among them.

Turner documented his travels in countless sketchbooks, which served in subsequent years as patterns and inspiration for large format watercolours, oil paintings and etchings. Notable among these is the Lucerne Sketchbook of 1844, the year Turner made his final visit, which has survived intact as part of the Turner Bequest and is included in the exhibition.

Turner’s travels coincided with industrialisation and urbanisation, when people began to long for untouched nature. In art, this led to a surge in popularity away from historical tableaux and battle scenes to landscapes. By contemplating nature, the viewer could find peace of mind. Industrialisation also brought more buyers into the market with their new found wealth and Turner, an astute businessman, was happy to cater to them.

The most famous of Turner’s Lucerne paintings is ‘The Blue Rigi, Sunrise’ (1842, pictured above), considered one of his late watercolour masterpieces. The Rigi, the “Queen of Mountains” (1,798 metres), looms on the opposite side of Lake Lucerne from the city and from his room in the lakeside Schwanen Hotel or the deck of the first steamboat on the lake Turner could study its gentle silhouette. (The hotel building now houses the popular Restaurant Schwanen Cafe de Ville, where diners can enjoy much the same view as Turner repeatedly depicted.) The Tate bought the painting in 2007 for a record £4.95 million.

Ironically, Turner never climbed the Rigi, but Queen Victoria (by sedan chair) and Mark Twain (by Europe’s first cog railway) were among the throngs of tourists to marvel at sunrise from the summit. The composer Richard Wagner was not so lucky. On the appointed morning it rained heavily, so he stayed in bed.

Turner completed dozens of pencil sketches and over thirty watercolours of the Rigi in varying light and weather conditions. Like Hokusai and Mount Fuji. Cezanne and Mont Sainte-Victoire and Monet and water lilies, he returned to the subject again and again. 

Back in London studio, his agent would present these detailed studies to potential buyers in order to win commissions for Turner to further elaborate on the subjects. Today his paintings still resonate with a contemporary audience.

Turner: The Sea and the Alps continues at the Kunstmuseum Luzern until October 13, www.kunstmuseumluzern.ch/en

Lucerne by Moonlight: Sample Study’, c.1842-43, watercolour on paper © Tate, London, 2019
‘Lucerne by Moonlight: Sample Study’, c.1842-43, watercolour on paper © Tate, London, 2019

 

Kunstmuseum Luzern
Kunstmuseum Luzern

 

Exhibition view of Turner: The Sea and the Alps at the Kunstmuseum Luzern. Photo: Marc Latzel
Exhibition view of Turner: The Sea and the Alps at the Kunstmuseum Luzern. Photo: Marc Latzel

 

One of the finest private art collections in the world, the Rosengart Collection shows a host of artist’s which reads like a Who’s Who of modern art, with two prime emphases on 20th century giants, both with a whole floor all to themselves.

Pablo Picasso is represented by over a hundred paintings, sculptures, drawings, graphic designs and ceramics (the museum founders were his leading Swiss dealers), with a similar number of watercolours, drawings and paintings by Paul Klee. 

A third floor is dedicated to over 20 further artists from the age of  Impressionism and Classic Modernism, including (deep breath) Bonnard, Braque, Calder, Cezanne, Chagall, Dufy, Kandinsky, Leger, Liebermann, Matisse, Miro, Modigliani, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Seurat, Signac, Soutine, Utrillo and Vuillard.

In 1978, the late art dealer Siegfried Rosengart and his daughter Angela presented the City of Lucerne with eight masterpieces by Picasso to mark the city’s 800th anniversary. This laid the foundations for the Lucerne Picasso Museum, which they further endowed over subsequent years. Since 2008 these works have been incorporated into the Rosengart Collection, which is housed in a stately, neoclassical building, formerly the Swiss National Bank. 

Angela Rosengart, now 87, was able to watch Picasso at work. He painted her. Five times. She recalls: “To endure Picasso’s gaze was an incredible experience. He seemed to bore into me with his eyes, indeed to eat me up.” www.rosengart.ch/en 

Angela Rosengart with one of her portraits by Picasso (1964). © The Rosengart Collection Museum, Lucerne
Angela Rosengart with one of her portraits by Picasso (1964). © The Rosengart Collection Museum, Lucerne

 

Further Info

The Swiss Travel Pass offers a range of benefits, including free rail journey from Swiss airport to destination, a free cable car/cog railway ride up the Rigi, a boat trip on Lake Lucerne, reduced admission to the Turner exhibition and free admission to the Rosengart Collection. Swiss Travel System, www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk, T 00800 100 200 30 

For info on Switzerland: www.myswitzerland.com 

For info on Lucerne: www.luzern.com 

How to Get There: SWISS operates flights from Edinburgh, London Heathrow, London City, Birmingham and Manchester to Zurich, Geneva and Basel. Fares from £49 ret., incl. taxes. www.swiss.com/uk, 0845 601 0956

Where to Stay: Artmag was hosted by the five-star Grand Hotel National, which offers stunning views over Lake Lucerne. www.grandhotel-national.com/en

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