Sunday, 20 September 2009





A new exhibition at Tate Britain celebrates one of the best loved of all British artists, the landscape painter John Constable. In his own lifetime, Constable was constantly struggling to catch up with his great rival, J.M.W. Turner, whose astonishing fluency he could never match. Turner has maintained his fame, but, among the British at least, Constable is now more intimately loved. People talk of the ‘Constable country’ in Suffolk that he made his own artistically, and the images he created appear on calendars, kitchen towels and place mats. You don’t have to be an intellectual to love Constable’s work – in fact, it is probably better if you aren’t.


What the audience of today responds to in Constable’s work is the directness with which it conveys his experience of a particular place, seen in a particular light, at a specific time of day. That means that they respond most of all to the artist’s sketches, kept private in his own lifetime and never intended for mass consumption. These sketches, made en plein air, are seen as the forerunners of Impressionism.


The Tate exhibition looks in a rather different direction and raises questions that many of Constable’s non-specialist admirers have been reluctant to face. It concentrates on what the artist called his ‘six-footers’ – the large paintings around 1.5 meters high by two meters wide that the artist produced in order to further his reputation at the annual exhibitions of the Ryal Academy. In the early 19th century, and indeed until much later, this was the main competitive arena for ambitious British artists. Very unusually, Constable prepared these works by making full-scale ‘sketches’ or rough versions. These the Tate now shows paired with the paintings that the artist showed as finished works.


Since Constable’s day there has been a decisive shift in taste. We now instinctively prefer these rougher, bolder, and to our eyes [and despite the large scale] more ‘intimate’ works to those that Constable put on view as public proofs of his talent. It is these big sketches that seem to supply proof of Picasso’s assertion: “Painting is a blind man’s profession. He paints not what he sees, but what he feels, what he tells himself about what he has seen.”


However, the matter is not as simple as it seems. In all his work – the finished paintings as well as things made in preparation for them – Constable is struggling with the long-established conventions for painting landscape that he had inherited from the artists of the past. The Tate catalogue suggests, convincingly, that among his sources were the large landscapes occasionally painted by Rubens. It also points out certain crucial differences – for example, Rubens’s adherence to the convention that foregrounds should be green, but distant spaces predominantly blue. It also points out that, whereas Rubens preferred sunrise or sunset, times when long shadows could be used to bind a landscape composition together, Constable habitually painted noonday scenes, preferring a light that showed all details as unequivocally as possible. In other words, Constable was in search of a style that suggested that nothing had stood between himself and the direct experience of nature.


In 1821 Constable exhibited The Haywain at the Royal Academy. It was seen there by the great French Romantic artist Théodore Géricault, who admired it greatly, and recommended Constable to the Paris dealer John Arrowsmith. Arrowsmith eventually, after much haggling, bought the painting and arranged for it to be exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1824, where it caused a sensation and won the artist a gold medal. In France Constable was seen as the peer of artists such as Géricault and Delacroix, who were trying to destabilize the neo-classical heritage of Hacques Louis-David. The brushwork, though much smoother than that of the full-size sketch, intrigued the Parisian cognoscenti by its roughness, and at the Salon the canvas had to be hung at a lower level so that visitors could inspect its surface more closely. Delacroix reworked parts of his Massacre at Chios, also shown in the Salon of 1824, in response to Constable’s handling.


When one sees sketch and finished painting together, as one can at the Tate Britain show, this reaction seems extraordinary, as the sketch is so much less conventional in its facture than the work that so much impressed the French. At the same time, however, one gets the feeling that in this preparatory painting Constable was only stumbling towards something that would only be fully achieved by other artists long after his time.


I think in the end the thing that makes such a powerful impression in Constable’s best work is something that supports Picasso’s remark about painting, cited above. He may have thought of himself as being primarily a naturalistic artist, striving to convince his audience that this was the way things really looked, unaffected by any flight of the imagination, but in reality, like a number of his British contemporaries, he was a mystic at heart. There is a comparison to be made with the early work of Samuel Palmer, who was painting mystical landscapes at Shoreham in Kent in the late 1820s and early 1830s. Palmer’s paintings of this period are usually tiny but there is an obvious link between some of them and Constable’s large Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, painted in 1831. The over-arching rainbow in this painting has been tentatively linked to Constable’s anxieties about the condition of the Anglican Church, threatened at that time by proposed secularizing reforms. For example, civil marriage, outside of the church, was finally made legal in Britain in 1836.


In other words, what Constable did is obliquely linked to the religious revival that was taking place in England at the time when his large canvases were produced. In addition, and perhaps this is more important, both the big sketches and the finished paintings made with their help are statements about the importance of rural values and gestures of resistance to the Industrial Revolution that was then transforming the British landscape and British society. Given the nostalgia for a lost rural Arcadia that still exists in Britain, it is not surprising that Constable, rather than Turner, is regarded by the public as our national artist.






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