February 25, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Rome, California?

By |2023-08-02T19:03:06+02:00December 24th, 2010|Features Archive, History 102|
Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino: To Malibu?

price has been put on Rome. In July, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu purchased British artist J.M.W. Turner’s 1839 masterpiece “Modern Rome-Campo Vaccino” (or “Cow Pasture”) from Sotheby’s for a staggering $45 million dollars. A record-breaking sum for a Turner, the Getty purchase trumps Las Vegas casino tycoon Steve Wynn’s $35.8 million take in 2006 of “Giudecca, La Donna Della Salute and San Giorgio” (1840), an exquisite landscape that Turner painted during his final visit to his beloved Venice.

Introverted, curmudgeonly and restless, Turner was born in 1775 to a Covent Garden wig maker and his mentally ill wife. A master “painter of light” who washed his Romantic landscapes, seascapes and architectural depictions in splendid chromatic colors, Turner put emotion over topographical truth in his atmospheric oils and watercolors. His innovations elevated landscape painting to the same lofty climes as history painting and laid the foundations for Impressionism, thus making Turner the most important and complex artist of the British 19th century.

Essential to Turner’s success were his voracious travels — no easy feat in the days before railways and Baedekers. It is a testament to Turner’s enduring passion for Italy that he visited the peninsula seven times in his 76 years. The Italian journeys were an absolute revelation for Turner’s art.

Turner first visited in 1802, but because peace between Britain and France under the Treaty of Amiens was short-lived, he didn’t get much past the Alps. It wasn’t until 1819 that Turner, by then 44, embarked on his first real Italian excursion. Some of Turner’s abiding inspirations were Piranesi, Titian and the Rome landscapes of French painter Claude Lorrain. Turner had a particular adoration for Renaissance darling Raphael, who he elevated to majesty in the arduously entitled “Rome, From the Vatican, Raffaele, Accompanied by La Fornarina, Preparing his Pictures for the Decoration of the Loggia” (1820).

“Modern Rome-Campo Vaccino” left no doubt that Turner had arrived in his Promised Land.

A luminous panorama of the unexcavated Roman Forum as seen from the Capitoline Hill, “Campo Vaccino” is a diaphanous vision of pale ruins and Baroque churches bathed in golden light beneath a hazy blue sky. It is a nostalgic, almost evanescent dream of Rome, laced with spiritual affection. Despite the copious Rome sketches Turner made in his notebooks, the painting was composed from memory in Britain. It encapsulates the double zenith of Turner’s Italian hours and his extraordinary gifts.

So treasured is “Campo Vaccino” that when the Getty completed the sale, the UK responded by placing it under a temporary export ban. British law stipulates that culturally significant works of art located in Britain for more than 50 years require a license for sale and export. The provenance of “Campo Vaccino’s” is indeed exceptional. Still in its original gold and gilt frame, it has had only two owners in its 171 years: Turner’s close friend and estate executor Hugh A.J. Munro and later Archibald Primrose, a nobleman and British prime minister who bought it for his newlywed bride, the heiress Hannah Rothschild. The painting had been on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland since 1978 until Primrose’s descendants put it on the auction block.

To keep the painting in Britain, a British individual or organization has until February 2011, or possibly even until August, to match the whopping Getty offer. It is a familiar song and dance for the Getty, whose $22 million dollar bid for “Madonna of the Pinks” (1507), painted ironically by Turner’s hero Raphael, was matched by Britain’s National Gallery in 2005.

According to Franklin Kelly, the senior curator of American and British Art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., after Britain, the United States has the largest number of important Turner oils and watercolors. These include the three seminal British history paintings “The Burning of the Houses of Parliament” (1834), “The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons” (1835) and “The Slave Ship” (1840). If “Modern Rome-Campo Vaccino” finds its way to the Getty, Los Angeles will have the third largest number of Turners in America after Yale’s New Haven collection and the National Gallery’s collection in Washington D.C.

Though London’s Tate Gallery still has plenty of Turner works, the movement of “Modern Rome-Campo Vaccino” from London to Malibu, should it go through, will remove the artist’s shimmering Rome even further from its origins and cast it into a new Pacific light.

About the Author:

Jennifer Theriault's "History 102" column ran from 2010 through 2015.