John Constable, the great British landscape painter of the early 19th century, was well-matched to the age and the nation in which he lived. Constable’s art is the subject of a major exhibition at the Princeton University Museum of Art. The 85 paintings, oil sketches and drawings on display detail the amazing artistic leap that Constable made in depicting the natural world.
Constable’s breakthrough occurred during the years 1813 to 1824. This was the crucial period when the Industrial Revolution began to change forever the lives and the physical environment of the people of Great Britain. It also came at the precise moment when landscape painting assumed a central role in British art, its influence then passing to the rest of Europe. The sensation that Constable’s The Hay Wain created at the Paris Salon of 1824 marked a turning point in the perspective of Western art and culture. A new awareness of nature had dawned.
John Constable, to put it quite simply, was the right man in the right place at the right time.
Constable was born in 1776, in the Stour River Valley in the county of Suffolk. The names of buildings and other landmarks from this bountiful farm belt, such as Flatford Mill and Dedham Vale, would later figure in Constable’s art. An early landscape, The Valley of the Stour, painted between 1805-1809, shows the almost religious feeling that Constable invested into depictions of his native soil. As Constable said in an often quoted remark, “But I should paint my own places best—painting is but another word for feeling.”
Of great significance for Constable, and for British art generally, is the geographic placement of his boyhood home. Suffolk, located in the east of England, has a coastline on the North Sea directly across from Holland. It was the Dutch who pioneered landscape painting during the 1600’s and Suffolk was the place where Dutch ideas and immigrants often came ashore.
The Dutch, having little solid earth beneath their feet, appreciated what they did have by fighting fiercely to protect it. The Dutch heroically defended their little republic against invading armies and the ever-present danger of flooding by the stormy North Sea. Dutch artists during the 1600’s, notably Jacob Van Ruisdael, Aelbert Cuyp and Meindert Hobbema, began depicting the countryside and sea coast of the Netherlands in ways that were both evocative and realistic. During the 18th century, British artists like the Suffolk-born Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) incorporated much of the Dutch landscape tradition in their art.
King George IV, while Prince Regent, acquired a number of Dutch 17th century landscapes during the first two decades of the 19th century for the Royal Collection. Other British savants followed suit and the effect on aspiring artists like Constable was considerable. Viewing Van Ruisdael’s Evening Landscape: A Windmill by a Stream, Constable expressed his admiration for Ruisdael’s “acres of sky.”
Constable, for all his homage to the early Dutch landscape painters, was not content to merely imitate them. Very much a man of his era, Constable was both a Romantic visionary and a methodical observer of nature. Focusing on how to accurately depict the natural world, Constable conceived a “mission statement” for landscape painting that was little short of a revolutionary manifesto:
Painting is a science, and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why then may not landscape painting be considered as a branch of natural philosophy of which pictures are but the experiments?
To appreciate the radical approach of Constable’s “experiments,” we have to forget the hallowed status of major works like The Hay Wain. Instead, we need to concentrate on the oil studies which he made in preparation for the final versions later placed on display at the annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy. This is the aim of the Princeton Museum of Art exhibit. Constable’s “preliminary” oil sketches are revealed by this insightful exhibition as major works of art in their own right.
Constable’s experimental method can be studied in one of the major paintings on display in the Princeton exhibition. This is the full-scale study for The Hay Wain. It is a “six-footer” like the finished work, having been painted on a canvas, slightly over six feet wide. The study itself is based on small oil sketches made a decade earlier.
Both “six-footers” depict the same basic scene, a hay wagon fording a stream. A small dwelling known as Willy Lott’s Cottage, still standing today, is located to the left of the painting. Constable knew the scene well, as he painted it standing in front of a watermill, Flatford Mill, owned by his father, Golding Constable.
There are major differences between the full-scale study for The Hay Wain and the finished version. A young boy is sitting astride a horse at the bottom of the study. Next to him is a black and white spaniel. In the finished version, the dog stayed and the horse and rider departed. It was a wise decision on Constable’s part, for in deleting them he opened up the foreground. This strategic move enables viewers to focus on the wagon without being distracted. The presence of the black and white spaniel, apart from satisfying the English love of dogs, provides a reference point for the river bank without detracting from the central action of the painting.
The Hay Wain, in both versions, is as much a “skyscape” as a landscape. The crucial differences in the two versions of the painting lie in the way that Constable rendered the swirling cloud masses and their reflection in the water of the stream below.
The clouds in the full-scale study are dense and dark, especially in the center. Only the barest of patches of blue sky peak through the cloud banks, with the result that the murky stream beneath them is hard to distinguish from the ground. In the finished version, the clouds have parted and a gentle wash of light blue sky is reflected in the stream. The whole landscape is transformed in a moment of atmospheric change, as it can be at any time in Britain, where the sky is always, seemingly, in motion.
“It will be difficult to name a class of landscape in which the sky is not the key note,” Constable declared, “the standard of scale and the chief organ of sentiment.”
Constable was not the only Englishman of his era whose attention was directed toward the sky. In December 1802, a pharmacist named Luke Howard (1772-1864) presented a scientific paper entitled “On the Modification of Clouds.” In the English usage of that period, “modification” referred to “classification” and Howard’s cloud types are still in use today: Cirrus, Cumulus and Stratus.
Howard’s new terminology appears in the title of an oil sketch by Constable, dating to 1821-1822. Study of Cirrus Clouds brilliantly exemplifies Constable’s close attention to nature, to the point where the traditional reference points of landscape painting disappear. The sky is truly “the chief organ of sentiment” in this work. Although only intended as a study, this oil on paper succeeds as a major work, at least from the vantage point of the 21st century. It vigorously incorporates the sense of mobility and interaction of its elements, in this case, the air currents and cloud formation. Study of Cirrus Clouds is an “action painting” a century or more before Harold Rosenberg created the term for the New York School painters of the 1950’s for whom the canvas was “an arena in which to act.”
For Constable, the sky was his arena.
There is speculation as to the degree that Howard’s systematic study of clouds influenced Constable. While he was certainly aware of Howard’s classification, the similarities of their respective boyhood experiences were much more significant. Howard had kept a weather journal since the age of ten, while Constable during his teen years had worked in a windmill owned by his father. He learned to “read” the sky, just as Howard had done, so that he could be prepared to raise the windmill’s canvas sails in order to catch a breeze and to furl them to prevent them from being ripped apart in a gale.
Constable carried out his landscape painting “experiments” in true scientific style. While his full-scale studies and finished paintings were done in his studio, Constable spent long hours of sketching and painting in the outdoors. On the back of these preliminary works, he methodically recorded the date, time and details of sky and weather for future reference.
Constable used a full-range of media, pencil sketches, sepia and watercolor to record his observations of nature. Watercolor was the particular favorite of other British landscape painters of the time, like John Sell Cotman and J.M.W. Turner, who also made artistic expeditions into the English countryside. But Constable made a major advance in artistic technique by painting in oils on paper, directly from nature.
A superb example of Constable’s trademark oil sketches is A River Scene, with a Farmhouse Near the Water’s Edge. Painted in the mid-1830’s, toward the end of Constable’s career, A River Scene is reminiscent of The Hay Wain. Constable never intended it as a finished work. However, he brilliantly integrated a magnificent depiction of moving cloud masses, dark and light, as they range across the canvas, with a forceful handling of tree limbs and farmhouse roof and chimney. Everything else – rowboat and riverbank – were treated as fleeting visual sensations. Nearly a half century before Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley began painting in a similar fashion, Constable had blazed a trail to Impressionism.
Despite his pioneering strides in depicting the natural world, Constable found few buyers for his landscapes in England. He supported his family by painting portraits, at which he was competent, though not of the first rank. Fortunately, he did have two major patrons, both Anglican clergymen. These were John Fisher, the Bishop of Salisbury, and his nephew and namesake, the Archdeacon John Fisher, who became one of Constable’s closest friends. Archdeacon Fisher, though not particularly wealthy, bought a Constable “six-footer,” The White Horse, now in the Frick Collection in New York.
Constable responded to the much-needed support of his clergymen patrons by painting a number of outstanding depictions of Bishop Fisher’s cathedral. Salisbury Cathedral from the South West, painted in 1820, shows the unique confluence of several major themes of the period. Interest, indeed reverence, for English medieval church architecture impelled the great cultural phenomenon of the 19th century known as the Gothic Revival. But here in this oil sketch, Constable again points the way to Impressionism and Claude Monet’s series of atmospheric renditions of Rouen Cathedral.
Constable emphasized a sense of realism in his paintings that transcended merely recording topographical details. Constable aimed to evoke an accurate sense of the spirit of the place he painted. This was in keeping with the second part of his remark that he “should paint my own places best.” For Constable, painting really was “but another word for feeling.”
Constable, regrettably, had more than his share of gray skies in his personal life as the 1820’s progressed. In 1824, he took his beloved wife, Maria, to the popular seaside resort of Brighton, to counter the spread of tuberculosis that led to her death in 1828, at the age of 41. Constable never embraced the popular regard for Brighton, which he referred to as “Piccadilly by the Seaside.” Yet he produced an impressive body of work at Brighton, including this haunting vista of two forlorn figures standing on a shoreline under ominous sky. No doubt Brighton Beach, painted in 1824, reflected Constable’s deepening concern for his wife’s health. But this oil sketch also reflects the gnawing fear of the Romantic generation that nature, for all of its supposed redemptive qualities for the human soul, is in fact sublimely indifferent to man’s fate.
Constable painted his fair share of ruined castles following his wife’s death. He dressed in black for the remainder of his life. However, if a single painting, representative of his entire body of work and his outlook on life, can be selected, the oil on canvas from 1828, Hampstead Heath, Branch Hill Pond, would be a fine choice.
Constable and his family lived on Hampstead Heath at various intervals, so that he could be near the cultural activity of London.. Hampstead Heath offered Constable a surrogate Suffolk, a place where he could continue his investigations of the natural world.
What Hampstead Heath, Branch Hill Pond affirms is that human beings can live in harmony with nature. From the children swimming in the pond to herdsman and agricultural workers making a living on the heath, Constable is depicting a natural world that is enhanced, not threatened, by the hand of man.
That might seem an unwarranted act of optimism on the part of Constable, considering the ecological depredations of the Industrial Revolution that was hitting its stride during the 1820’s.
Constable’s approach to landscape painting, however, was far more than an exercise in nostalgia. Instead, he rooted his appreciation of nature in the “here and now” of everyday life. Through paintings like Hampstead Heath, Branch Hill Pond, Constable presented scenes of human beings interacting with nature, not despoiling it. With these works, he bequeathed a sense of the precious nature of the world around us, in whatever age and place we call home.
In a lecture which he delivered in 1836, a year before his death, Constable declared prophetically:
For man is the sole intellectual inhabitant of one vast natural landscape. His nature is congenial with the elements of the planet itself, and he cannot but sympathize with its features, its various aspects and its phenomena in all situations. We are no doubt placed in a paradise here if we choose to make it such …
Appearing at the Princeton University Art Museum March 17 – June 10, 2012, Princeton, NJ (609-258-3788). The Museum is located on the Princeton University campus a short walk from Nassau Street in downtown Princeton.
Constable: Oil Sketches from the Victoria and Albert Museum will also appear at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, TN, June 22–Sept. 30, 2012.