Revealed: how Turner began his career copying the old masters

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JMW Turner has gone down in history as one of the most innovative landscape painters of the 19th century. But now a blockbuster exhibition is to shed new light on a lesser known side of Turner: his obsession to prove he was just as good, if not better, than the old masters whose virtuosity he so admired.

For the first time Tate Britain is to display some of Turner's masterpieces alongside the 16th and 17th-century canvases he was trying to emulate.

Turner And The Masters, which opens next autumn, will bring together 100 works of historical significance from collections around the world that will look at Turner's work in the company of the greatest painters in art history and reveal his debt to them. Turner was first invited to exhibit his work at the Royal Academy at the tender age of 22. When he unveiled Moonlight, A Study At Millbank, in 1797, an evocative portrait of the moon above London which showed his ability to paint reflective light, few art historians could fail to see its remarkable resemblance to the campfire scene in Landscape With The Rest On The Flight Into Egypt, by Rembrandt, who was the hitherto unparalleled master of painting light and reflection.

So began Turner's lifelong mission to imitate, rival and surpass the styles of old masters such as Rubens, Rembrandt, Claude Lorrain and Poussin as well as contemporaries such as Constable.

Stephen Deuchar, director of Tate Britain, said there were many instances in which Turner sought to outdo his historical rivals. In his attempt to emulate Rembrandt's use of paint in drawing light, Mr Deuchar said he was saying to his audience: "I don't only understand how Rembrandt achieved his affect but I can do the same and in fact, I can do better".

Among them was a bucolic scene painted in 1815 called Crossing the Brook, which was uncannily reminiscent of the 17th-century landscape painter, Claude Lorrain's Moses Saved from the Waters.

"This is probably the most dramatic in terms of how much the Turner really does look like the Claude. It can been seen in the way he chose to paint the horizon at exactly the same point, the trees and the foreground figures receding into the middle distance. It is an obvious reworking of Claude Lorrain's work for the 19th-century British public," he said.

The unveiling of the Turner exhibition came as Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Galleries, announced next year's programme for the four Tate galleries in London, Liverpool and St Ives. He also revealed that 2007 was a record year for acquisitions to the Tate's collection, with 494 works, valued at £63m, acquired over 12 months, including works presented by Damien Hirst, Louise Bourgeois and David Hockney, as well as Stanley Spencer's painting, The Wool Shop, among others.

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