Inigo Thomas at the London Review of Books:
‘The world has never seen anything like this picture,’ Thackeray said. Commenting on the writer’s reaction to the painting, John Barrell wrote (in the LRB of 18 December 2014) that Thackeray ‘won’t have to wait for the tide of modern art to flood in to appreciate what Turner has done. It’s 1844, and he’s got it. Turner is not out of his time; he and Turner are contemporaries.’ The tide of modern art wasn’t long in coming: in the first Impressionist salon in 1874, George Braquemond showed an etching of Manet’s Olympia alongside an intriguing version of Rain, Steam and Speed. He captured some of the elements of Turner’s title – the wind-driven rain slashes across the bridge – but his train appears as static as a Monet locomotive idling at the Gare St Lazare. He also left out the hare.
Kenneth Clark described Rain, Steam and Speed as the ‘most extraordinary’ of Turner’s paintings. ‘I suppose that everybody today would accept it as one of the cardinal pictures of the 19th century on account of its subject as well as its treatment.’ That subject is often seen as the ascendancy of man-made industrial society and the obliteration of the old natural order. Andrew Wilton, the author of Turner in His Time, considered the painting’s perspective as indicative of the triumph of the new: ‘The plunging diagonal line that cuts across the familiar location here is an emphatic demonstration of how the new technologies of the age imposed a precise geometric order on the pastoral scene.’