Helvoetsluys; the City of Utrecht, 64, Going to Sea
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Helvoetsluys; the City of Utrecht, 64, Going to Sea encouraged a great feud between J.M.W. Turner and John Constable.

That teeny-tiny little scarlet buoy bobbing across the waters of Utrecht harbor was the gasoline on top of the fire of the feud of a century.

You hear about great rivalries in art history a lot. From Michelangelo and Raphael, to Banksy and King Robbo. The 1800s also had two heavyweights battling for the title.

It’s Varnishing Day in 1832, and the exhibition at the Royal Academy is on. In a small room at Somerset House, John Constable is applying the finishing touches on Opening of Waterloo Bridge, his 15 years of labor. Enter Joseph Mallord William Turner. Hanging nearby is his painting Helvoetsluys; the City of Utrecht, 64, Going to Sea. After staring at Constable's painting, Turner exits the room, only to return with fresh paint to apply a glob of red on his own canvas. Turner’s version of a mic drop! Constable reputed this act, saying “He has been here and fired a gun.” 

This bitter feud has been in the boiling pot for years, dating back to 1803 when Constable took delight in Turner’s failed exhibition. Constable was not afraid to voice his criticism of Turner, but Turner still had admirers aplenty, and Constable was made aware. Like in 1820, once Constable was elected as an Associate of the Royal Academy, a senior academician advised him to study Turner’s technique. A slap to the face if there ever was one. Then, in 1831, when John Constable acted as the “hangman,” someone responsible for placing the paintings around the room, Constable gave Turner the best wall to hang his painting on. That all changed when, just before the show’s opening, Constable did a switch, replacing Turner’s painting with his own. 

Turner had a great interest in maritime painting. While being a modernist, Turner’s dramatic paintings developed an abstract quality by the end of his life. He depicted globalization of the time, painting slaving ships, war, railways, and cargo vessels breaking trail. Early in his artistic career, Turner admired 17th century Dutch marine painters: William van de Velde, Rembrandt and van Ruysdael. Turner travelled frequently. Thanks to a celebrity career, money didn’t rain down, it poured. Turner’s travels were funded by his commissions, with patrons funding trips abroad just so Turner could paint landscape of Europe. He was an absolute superstar.

1832 was a big year for Turner. Helvoetsluys is one of six paintings Turner exhibited at the Royal Academy. But it was this little scarlet buoy, rivaling the vibrancy of Opening of Waterloo Bridge, that left Constable brooding.



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