Last year when the BBC asked listeners to vote on the greatest painting in Britain, the winner was Joseph Mallord William Turner's The Fighting Temeraire followed closely by John Constable's The Haywain. These results came as no surprise since these two artists, rivals born within a year of each other, were linked together in their lifetimes and ever since. Turner's bravura creations in oils or watercolors are show stoppers wherever they are displayed, while Constable's quiet idyllic scenes of the rural countryside have come to typify all that is best about England for the English.|
In America, despite having some of Constable's best work in collections from Connecticut to California, the average museumgoer is much less familiar with him than with the Romantic Delacroix, our own Hudson River School painters, or the great Impressionists Monet and Pissarro, all of whom were influenced by Constable to one degree or another.
This year the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., which has already offered focused surveys of artists who established or enlarged the standards of great painting, in their exhibitions Bellini, Giorgione, Titian and The Renaissance of Venetian Painting and Cezanne in Provence, now presents in Constable's Great Landscape: The Six Foot Paintings a show devoted to the crowning achievements of one of England's premier artists.
The exhibit follows a chronological path which is essential with an artist like Constable who believed that "painting is but another name for feeling". Walking through it is like reading Constable's autobiography. A small self-portrait of Constable opens the show. We see a handsome young man with a confident look, large aquiline nose, firm chin and long sideburns who might have stepped out of a Jane Austen novel. Rather than looking at the viewer, Constable is gazing in the direction of his first paintings of the town of East Bergholt in the Stour River Valley. Located in Suffolk in the southeast of England, this was the beloved region in where the painter grew up and which would come to be known as "Constable Country" through his art.
Constable's father, Golding, was a prominent coal and grain merchant who owned many of the mills along the river which his son was to paint. While Golding expected that the younger man would follow in the family business, he did not oppose John's decision to become an artist. To be a serious painter at the turn of the 19th century meant going to London to study at the Royal Academy which Constable entered in 1799. There never seemed any question in the young man's mind that he would be a landscape painter and he soon was learning to paint in accordance with the pastoral conventions laid out by the 17th century masters of landscape Claude Lorrain, Peter Paul Rubens and Jacob van Ruisdael.
Yet early in Constable's career we see the temperamental and nonconformist artist bridling at having to learn solely from conventional artistic practices and vowing that in his case "Nature" would be his ultimate teacher. "For these past two years I have been running after pictures and seeking the truth at second hand. I have... endeavored to make my performance look as if really executed by other men..." In 1802 Constable declared his artistic independence: "I shall shortly return to Bergholt where I shall make some laborious sketches from nature... there is room enough for a natural painter." In these words we have a clear expression of the Romantic notion that the true artist must possess an original vision, yet at the same time this vision must be grounded in the study of nature.
One of the first results of this conviction is the National Gallery's own Wivenhoe Park, Essex, a panoramic view of a friend's estate. Constable painted most of it outdoors which was unusual for the time. The work has both the finely executed brushwork and careful arrangement of details which Constable learned from his teachers. But this is not a conventional work as one can see by studying the different shades of green he employs for the trees and the level of specificity he gives to the details. The clouds which we see scudding across the sky cast long shadows on the countryside below making the radiance of the day even more beautiful. Here we have the beginnings of one of Constable's greatest insights that nature never stands still and the painter who would capture it must learn to show its movement.
In 1809, Constable met and fell in love with Maria Bicknell courting her against the opposition of her snobbish family until they finally married 1816. The couple settled in London where Constable had a studio. It was then that the painter determined to achieve greater recognition and charge higher prices by painting works on the same large scale that Turner was doing but without "the great vice of the present day... bravura, an attempt at something beyond the truth".
As we walk into the next gallery and look at the first of these large canvases, The White Horse, we see a simple narrative of a tow horse being ferried from one bank of the river to another on a serene summer day. Although it was painted completely in his London studio based on sketches he made a few years earlier, the work is evocative of the lush, precise and emotionally charged details that Constable loved.
Yet the painting gave Constable no end of trouble, so much so that out of fear of failure he said his prayers before it every night. In order to be competitive in the intense arena of the Royal Academy exhibits, Constable needed to make his paintings attract attention at first glance and at a distance as well as hold that attention and up close. In order to work out his composition on a large scale and at the same time keep it fresh and vivacious, he believed a full scale sketch was necessary. When it was exhibited the next spring, The White Horse was greeted with more praise than Constable had ever received and the Academy finally elected him as an associate member. Over the next decade he produced a half dozen works which he called his "six footers" staked his claim to artistic immortality. Each of these began life as full scale sketches. This exhibit is the first time these full size sketches and the finished paintings have been brought together and it is highly unlikely they will be ever be so assembled again making this a once in a lifetime viewing experience.
Curator Franklin Kelly has hung each sketch next to its finished version allowing an unprecedented look into the early stage of an artistic idea. The sheer painterly pleasure that Constable took in his method is clearly evident and since the parts of the sketches frequently clamor and shout for our separate attention we can better appreciate the dramatic unity which Constable finally imposed on the finished work.
The central painting in the series and the most famous painting Constable ever painted is The Haywain, a portrait of a hay cart crossing a ford which owes something to Rubens's View of Het Steen in the Early Morning (National Gallery, London). This was a painting Constable greatly admired for the "joyous and animated character" Rubens imparted to the sky filling it with departing showers and rainbows. Constable recreated the area around Flatford Mill which was his father's first home and the place where Constable's siblings were born. The house which figures so prominently in this and the other works had earlier belonged to a man who lived his entire seventy years in Flatford. Clearly a metaphor for the tradition and continuity to which Constable was extremely sensitive, this like all his best work is inevitably rooted in the emotional associations of his "careless boyhood"
The serene mood of these early works in the series gives way in The Leaping Horse to a powerful, dramatic image of a boy on a horse struggling to jump over a barrier making it the pictorial and emotional climax of the entire series. By using a low viewpoint he made the horse and rider seem almost monumental recalling the noble tradition of equestrian portraits by Titian, Rembrandt and Velazquez. Despite his aversion to bravura painting, the drama of this last work comes in part from its dynamic handling. Many areas are worked out roughly with a palette knife.
Towards the end of the series, Constable realized the need to develop other subjects for his painting. When Maria Constable became ill, the family summered at Brighton to benefit from the sea air. Constable was moved by the magnificence of the sea but he also found the whole resort depressing. Both of these emotions are reflected in Chain Peer Brighton which depicts the remains of the old fishing village in the foreground juxtaposed with luxury resort hotels rising in the distance all under an overwhelmingly stormy sky.
The most moving of the late paintings Hadleigh Castle, a picture of medieval ruin overlooking the Thames River, is a kind of homage to Constable's recently deceased wife. He had only been to this site once in 1814 during their difficult courtship period. In a letter to Maria he mentions the "melancholy grandeur" of the view. With its crumbling ruins and bleak overcast sky this canvas is the most obviously Romantic of all his painting but one feels the artist has earned his right to paint it. Not surprisingly this was the painting that resulted in his full appointment to the Academy.
Constable's intention was to bring the truth of nature and the truth of the heart closer together than any other painter before him. One of the ways he did this was by juxtaposing a landscape that is benign and ordered and on a human scale with a sky that is ungovernable and vast and indifferent or even hostile to the human endeavors. This extraordinary exhibit illuminates how Constable liberated landscape painting from the leaden conventions and restrictive traditions under which it had labored. Henceforth this type of painting could effectively serve as a vehicle for the expression of the powerful feelings, sentiments and moods of modern life. Constable's Great Landscapes reveals a painter who deserves to be considered with the late Titian, Velasquez and Rembrandt as one of those masters who invest oil paint with life enhancing emotion.
Exhibition organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., the Tate Britain, London, and the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California.
This article previously appeared in The Weekly Standard, November 13, 2006.
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