Rembrandt versus Turner in London


Looking for Mr Turner c/o Tate Photography

It’s the heavyweight fight of the year in London. Turner at the Tate has been battling it out with Rembrandt at the National Gallery in the big battle of the exhibition season.

It’s a closely fought affair as the two artistic greats compete for the title of most popular Old Master!

Crowds have been flocking to both London shows so I’ve been along to find out which has the upper hand. 

Battle of the titans


Rembrandt’s Man in Armour c/o Glasgow Life

Turner and Rembrandt are big crowd pleasers. Having visited both shows, I was surprised at the average age of the punters – which was over 65.

It’s not often that I’m the youngest person at an arts exhibition but both shows seem to be attracting ‘the older visitor’.

The two-deep crowds were battling to grab close-up views of the art – with Zimmer frames helping to propel some folk to the front of the queues.

It’s odd because both painters challenged conventions during their own time and were huge innovators – the Damien Hirsts of their age.  So it’s a shame there isn’t a more diverse age group at these two exhibitions.

Perhaps it’s because the shows focus on the ‘late’ works of both artists?

‘Late Turner’ at the Tate and ‘Rembrandt – The Later Works’ at the National Gallery are very much about two masters at the height of their powers.

No longer the young pretenders, they aren’t content with becoming complacent. They’re taking on fresh challenges, experimenting with techniques of light and daring to take painting to new levels. 

Both shows are great, stuffed with fabulous paintings and packing a ‘wow’ factor for the crowds. It’s almost like a battle of the titans. The Ali versus Foreman of the art world – the rumble in the cultural jungle.

Rembrandt’s masterpieces


Rembrandt’s  The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Joan Deyman c/o Amsterdam Museums

The Rembrandt exhibition focuses on his later works from the 1650s until his death in 1669 aged 63.  It’s hard to believe that these works were created in the mid 17th Century, such is their daring content and experiments in style.

I’ve always been fascinated by Rembrandt’s choice of subject matter – and here it comes into its own. The paintings are bursting with the painter’s individuality and passion for people.

He chooses mundane and sometimes ugly subjects but gives them a sense of humanity which makes them fascinating. Every picture tells a human story, full of psychology and emotional empathy.


‘The Jewish Bride’ – Rembrandt c/o City of Amsterdam/Rijksmuseum

You can stand in front of these canvases and study the characters’ deepest motivations and emotional states, whether it’s a self-portrait, biblical picture or group scene. 

Unsurprisingly, some of the works from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam are the stars of the show.

The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild is one of Rembrandt’s finest with its echoes of The Night Watch.  You can study the characters for hours! 


The Sampling Officials – Rembrandt c/o Rijksmuseum

Rembrandt was also obsessed with painting ‘selfies’. His magnificent self portraits leap out like they were painted yesterday with their luminous light and experimental brush style. A true Dutch master captured by his own artistic hand.

I also love his works depicting everyday life and people in 17th Century Holland – they are timeless and endlessly fascinating. This was truly a Golden Age of Dutch painting. 

Although some of the works in the show are from the National Gallery’s permanent collection, many of the etchings and paintings are drawn from other British, American and Dutch museums. There is something new in the exhibition even for regular gallery-goers.  


The Conspiracy of the Batavians – Rembrandt c/o Royal Academy of Fine Arts Sweden 

Turner’s trademark landscapes

If Rembrandt was the forerunner of a realistic style of painting, Turner is often considered to be the father of modern art.

His works were far ahead of their time – many of the later paintings look Impressionistic, even though Monet didn’t create his groundbreaking works till 30 years later. 

The Blue Rigi, Sunrise 1842 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

The Blue Rigi, Sunrise 1842 by Turner c/o Tate Britain

Turner has been the subject of great interest in recent months, largely thanks to actor Timothy Spall’s portrayal of him in the film ‘Mr Turner’.

He’s a very different artist from Rembrandt in his choice of subjects.  Whilst Rembrandt is a master of the portrait, Turner is a genius at portraying landscapes.

It’s the first exhibition devoted to J.M.W. Turner’s work between 1835 and his death in 1851. This fabulous ‘tour de force’ show celebrates Turner’s creative flowering in his later years when he produced many of his finest pictures.


Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway – Turner c/o Tate

During this time he produced some of my favourite ‘blockbuster’ paintings  including Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway and The Fighting Temeraire.

The show also reunites two important Turner ‘classical’ works – ‘Ancient Rome – Agrippa Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus’ and ‘Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino’. They have been seen together rarely since first exhibited in 1839.


Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino – Turner c/o John Paul Getty Museum

I was delighted to see many unusual works in this show, not just those drawn from the Tate Britain’s fabulous Turner collection. 

A series of unusual square pictures cast fresh light on Turner’s innovative techniques. Little-seen watercolours of a fire at the Tower of London are shown together with Turner’s spectacular painting Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons.

I adore Turner’s use of light – the way he captures the luminosity and weather conditions is pure genius. Light and Colour is one of my personal favourites featured in the show with its explosion of colour and vibrant rays of light. 


Light and Colour – Turner c/o Tate Britain

Turner .v. Rembrandt

So which exhibition should you go and see?

This is a rare instance of it being impossible to separate the two protagonists in the battle of the blockbusters.


Turner – Burial at Sea c/o Tate Bequest

Turner and Rembrandt were light years ahead of their contemporaries, true innovators who changed art forever.

Self Portrait with two circles, about 1665-69.

Self Portrait with two circles – Rembrandt c/o Kenwood House/Iveagh Bequest

Both London exhibitions are well-curated, epic in scale, and ambitious in their representation of these two great masters.  It’s hard to choose between the two.

My personal taste means that I prefer Rembrandt’s portraits to his religious works, although even those aren’t conventional depictions of biblical scenes.

In the same way, I like Turner’s dramatic landscapes better than his Roman fables and ‘classical’ works, but they are still daring and original.  

Both men are geniuses who were way ahead of their time and even today their work looks fresh and challenging.

Nor were they afraid to wield a palette knife to gouge a line or use their fingers to create the dramatic effects they wanted on canvas.

Turner or Rembrandt? My answer is ‘both’! It’s impossible to judge one over the other. A honourable draw of the big-hitters!  

Don’t miss these blockbuster shows. 

Tammy’s art guide – Turner and Rembrandt 

Rembrandt – The Late Works is on at the National Gallery in London between 15 October 2014 – 18 January 2015 in the Sainsbury Wing. Admission charge. Some late openings. The nearest Tube station is Charing Cross.

Late Turner – Painting Set Free is at the Tate Britain in London from 10 September 201425 January 2015. Ticket charges. The nearest Tube station is Pimlico. 


Look out for late shows c/o Tate Photography

Turner fans can also visit the Clore Gallery at the Tate Britain, the gallery’s huge permanent collection of Turner paintings.

If you’re a fan of Rembrandt, the Rijksmuseum and Rembrandt House in Amsterdam are two must-see attractions, if you’re travelling outside the UK.


Rembrandt at the Rijksmuseum

Copyright – Turner images are courtesy and copyright of the Tate Britain. The Rembrandt images are courtesy and copyright of the National Gallery London, Kenwood House/Iveagh Bequest, the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam Museums, Royal Academy of Fine Arts Sweden and Glasgow Life.

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