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Turner and the Masters: Competitive streak

There's nothing like rivalry to inspire great art. A new exhibition exploring Turner's debt to fellow artists finds he surpasses most of them, says Michael Glover

To copy. To rival. To surpass.Yes, human endeavour is so often fuelled by naked ambition. Poets don't want to be poets alone. They want to be better than Shakespeare – or, at the very least, better than each other. Painters suffer from the same itch, the same affliction, as this show of works by Turner and the masters he wished to emulate and surpass demonstrates.

Turner arrived on the scene at the turn of the 19th century, when painting in general, and British painting in particular, were desperately trying to define the future. The old certainties, the old categories, were dying. History painting, once so pre-eminent, was withering on the vine. A new taste for portraiture was coming into vogue. A new appetite for a different kind of landscape painting was also in the air, something which would be less unbending than the late vogue for neo-classicism. The Romantic movement was fashioning anew the worlds of painting, literature and music. Nothing would remain untouched by this revolution.

This was not about political change; it was about the human heart. The importance of the individual was being registered to an extent not known before. William Wordsworth was writing The Prelude, which would prove to be a truly revolutionary investigation of his own mind and character.

And into this furious maelstrom of ideas, impulses and counter-impulses, stepped a young, working class Londoner called J M W Turner. He was a young man with an insatiable appetite, not only to be the greatest painter that the world had ever seen, but also to be the painter who would re-define the nature of painting in England, give it respectability on the world's stage, prove it to be the equal of the greatest works ever done by the Venetians and the Dutch.

It was a hard task. Turner had a long and a rubble-strewn road to travel. But, being a barber's son rather than the pampered scion of an aristocrat, and having nothing but his own bootstraps by which to elevate himself, he tried extremely hard, life-long, and he often succeeded – and at other times, he came within spitting distance of succeeding. The exhibition demonstrates his commitment to emulation by showing us his paintings alongside many of those works he would have studied or known from prints. We pass from one to the other, comparing and contrasting, seeing exactly what he did and how he did it, how he modified and absorbed and sometimes went one better.

There was nothing that Turner did not want to be good at. When he saw a marine painting by the Dutchman Willem Van de Velde the Younger, he wanted to go one better – and, as the two paintings hanging side by side on these walls demonstrate, he succeeded. In 1800 it was the Duke of Bridgewater, a notable collector of the day, who put Turner up to this early example of a sparring match between him and his rivals – both living and dead. Bridgewater asked him to paint a companion piece to Van de Velde's A Rising Gale, which had been painted in 1672. Bridgewater had snapped it up a few years before, not long after it had arrived from Amsterdam.

The subject of the two canvases are essentially the same – the violence that the sea can do to those who embark upon it in boats, at their peril. Turner knows that it is the threat of the sea which is the truly dramatic story, so he pulls the sea centre-stage, as it were, in Dutch Boats in a Gale: Fishermen Endeavouring to Put their Fish on Board, which was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1801. And he invests that sea with a terrifyingly inhuman degree of violence. He uses highlights to good effect, great washings and flickerings of brillant whites. He shows the sea roaring, raging, rising, plunging. And the humans on board ship, as a consequence, seem to be suffering more than they do on the Dutchman's boat, slithering and slipping and clinging on for dear life. Van De Velde's work looks just a touch complacently handsome by comparison, as if he has stood back in order to admire his compositional effects. Turner looks, in contrast, as if he's whipped off his waders and jumped into the maelstrom.

Turner took on the relatively recent past and his rivals in the present. In order to revitalise landscape painting, he studied the examples of Claude Lorrain, Aelbert Cuyp and others. In order to achieve a mastery of brilliant colour effects, he copied the 16th-century Venetians. Rembrandt taught him about the dramatic use of chiaroscuro. He taught him not only how to achieve gravitas – by using rich and sombre tones, for example – but how paintings could deploy light to maximum effect. Where exactly are the sources of light in these paintings? Turner asked himself that question when he was in the company of various works by Rembrandt. He saw how Rembrandt could use a combination of sources – a candle, a fire, the moon, – and how he would combine them to create very particular moods of religious reserve. It was all grist to the mill.

In order to try his hand at something more lightsome and fantastical altogether, he toiled to emulate Watteau and the frivolous French. That was an error. Turner was not a lightsome man. He didn't giggle easily, or dance around trees, making garments flutter and shimmer.

Nor, in general, was he good at the human figure. On almost every occasion that he introduces a figure into one of his compositions – except when the figures are of marginal significance, or are tipped in as entire groupings in order to balance inhuman massings elsewhere – he begins to fail, suffering some kind of loss of nerve, so that the entire composition – even its most inhuman elements – begins to lose weight and presence and credibility too. Call it the pricked balloon effect.

With natural effects it is quite otherwise. His ability to render atmospheric shifts of the weather, plays of light, strange golden suffusings, or the sudden, savage onset of storms, or those almost impalpable moments when the human eye simply does not know what it sees, because it is seeing something which is subject to so many dramatic shiftings and flickerings – he renders such effects with an intensity which has been surpassed by no other painter before or since.

Most interesting – and perhaps least known of all – are his forays into relatively small-scale genre painting in emulation of the Dutch Golden Age, when a market for small-scale works had developed as never before. David Wilkie was making a lot of money out these kinds of works at the turn of the 19th century, and Turner decided that he would do the same. Why could he not be good at everything? In fact, as demonstrated by his scene long-windedly entitled A Country Blacksmith Disputing upon the Price of Iron, and the Price Charged to the Butcher for Shoeing his Poney (shown at the Royal Academy in 1807), he could be very good indeed at genre painting. Wilkie, who had displayed a scene of Village Politicians the previous year (also hanging here), would have been right to feel threatened.

Genre painting represents the polar opposite of the Grand Manner – and Turner was very much into the Grand Manner, not least because big paintings, when they worked, made a huge splash on the walls of the Royal Academy, where there was always such a furious tussle for wall space. Genre painting, on the other hand, is about small-scale causeries between the saucy kitchen maid and the hirsute ostler in a kitchen corner, with a dog or two running riot, and a dead bird hung up to go high. That sort of thing. Yes, even this sort of painting Turner could toss off if the gauntlet were flung down with sufficient vehemence. And Wilkie, a testy Scotsman, had undeniably flung it down

Yes, this show is at its most entertaining best when it is telling us tales of naked rivalry. And the place where that rivalry was on most conspicuous display was usually the Royal Academy, which had been founded not long before Turner was born.

Here, for example, is the painting by Turner that he tweaked on Varnishing Day in 1832 – that day just before the opening of the all-important Summer Show when painters were allowed into the galleries to put finishing touches to their works – by adding a a splash of red. The painting was called Helvoetsluys – the City of Utrecht, 64, Going to Sea. The splash of red was added because the painting hanging beside it, Constable's The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, was so rich in colour. Turner added his own splash to take the edge off his rival's. Nothing is so enduring as human ambition.

Turner and the Masters, Tate Britain, London ( www.tate.org.uk) to 31 January