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Language of the heart

14 June 2006

3:34 PM

14 June 2006

3:34 PM

John Constable (1776–1837) is the quintessential painter of rural England. If we carry in our hearts an image of unspoilt countryside it will, more often than not, bear the lineaments of what has become known as Constable Country, that stretch of land along the river Stour in Suffolk that includes Dedham and Flatford, and the nearby village of East Bergholt. Magical names, redolent with the history imbuing Constable’s paintings of his native county. He immortalised the area in timeless images of extraordinary freshness and beauty. The Tate’s show of some 65 pictures does intelligent justice to a vision of landscape which continues to refresh the spirit.

As its title suggests, this exhibition focuses on the large-scale landscape paintings that Constable began to make in 1818–19, which measure around four-and-a-half feet by six and are often known as his ‘six-footers’. These were designed for exhibition at the Royal Academy, both to boost his career and to compete in scale and seriousness with the achievements of classical landscape painters, such as Claude, Ruisdael and Rubens. (The Ruisdael exhibition which has just finished at the RA is an excellent point of comparison here.) Constable’s own term for these symphonic topographical arrangements was the ‘great machines’. For many of them he made full-scale preliminary sketches, in oil on canvas, and in nine instances these studies have been reunited here with their finished pictures.

This majestic grouping forms the backbone of the exhibition and reopens the debate about the various merits of the sketch and the finished picture, particularly relevant to an era which values the unfinished over the highly polished. First thoughts appeal to us, and as such Constable’s freely painted sketches might be assumed to have the upper hand in this show. Certainly if one compares the Tate’s full-scale study of Hadleigh Castle with the finished painting (on loan from the Yale Center for British Art), the earlier picture is easily the more dramatic and tempestuous in terms of paint handling. In fact, it is the more ‘modern’-looking of the two; highly textured and less easy to read as a specific subject. However, it is the finished version which makes an altogether broader and grander appeal — not just as a painted artefact, but also as an event: an episode of torment transformed and transfigured (for it was painted after the death of Constable’s beloved wife), representing emotion recollected in (relative) tranquillity.

Constable revolutionised landscape painting by his almost scientific observation and close study of natural phenomena. This knowledge was translated into his imagery, but it was not left as such. No one had previously attempted this kind of naturalistic painting, with its accuracy and sparkle, yet the harmony of Constable’s ‘great machines’ is something not found in nature, but imposed by man. These paintings are thus a mixture of observation and intervention. Their classical poise is an invention, their lyricism a careful interpretation of the potential of nature, most often seen in spring-like mood. His unconventional technique, with its subtle glazing and flickering highlights (which Turner rudely described as splashes of paint dropped from the ceiling), was not only highly individual but also utterly original. Just compare the late work with his earlier paintings to appreciate the distance he travelled stylistically. No one had painted like this before, nor made a habit of painting such large sketches. Why did Constable?

Kenneth Clark, a great historian and connoisseur now somewhat out of fashion, offered a plausible explanation. ‘The full-scale studies were not so much dress rehearsals as emotional discharges which allowed him to attack his final canvas without a feeling of frustration.’ This may be something of an over-generalisation, but it seems to approach the truth. Constable needed to clear his mind by finding release for his remarkable and inventive dexterity with the brush. Then he could get down to the serious business of making paintings. It’s a rather different approach from ours today, but a no less valid one, for the results were magnificent. In effect, we get two paintings for the price of one: the luscious study and the disciplined finished picture, each offering different things.

Look, for instance, at the great sequence of six river Stour paintings, brought together here for the first time. In the full-size sketch for ‘Stratford Mill’, the light is a more important player, particularly where it streams between the trees in the middle of the picture and hits the water. It is exquisitely rendered: more extreme but more believable, and more convincingly atmospheric, than in the finished version. Constable attached great importance to the sky, calling it ‘the chief “organ of sentiment”’ and maintaining that it provided ‘the keynote’ in a landscape. In the sketches, he allowed his brushwork to be stormy and charging, whereas the finished pictures are models of harmony and restraint. Often the calmness of the finished version is more impressive than the sketch, for instance in ‘View on the Stour near Dedham’, which was substantially altered and developed between the sketch and the finished work.

In this case the composition was actually more complex but improved; more often, Constable was able to reconcile tensions and make a more complete statement. Consider that most famous of images ‘The Hay Wain’. Compare the crispness of the finished picture with the warm and blurry study, attractively informal, in which much of the brown underpainting is coming through. It has none of the ritual and dynamic power of the finished work. Altogether more eye-catching is the gorgeous little oil-on-paper study for it, also on loan from Yale. A feature of this show is the preponderance of lovely small studies — look at the two paintings of Willy Lott’s house, for example — which help to set off and enhance the great machines.

In the penultimate room is ‘Stoke-by-Nayland’ (c.1835–7), the last full-size sketch, for which no finished picture exists. It’s a great way to end an exhibition: the broken, feathery treatment full of passion and vigour, the light glinting off everything, revealing and concealing. Just this painting and a cabinet of studio materials — palette, knife, brushes and a metal box containing 11 pig-skin bladders of paint, a glass phial of blue pigment and a piece of gypsum for drawing or roughening paper and canvas.

The last room contains interactive screens for those who feel the need to play after the undiluted glories of a great exhibition. The show travels to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in the autumn, and opens at the Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino, early in 2007. It’s accompanied by a helpful and informative catalogue (£24.99 in paperback) that is for once an actual catalogue, closely following the layout of the exhibition, not just a volume of loosely connected essays.

In a letter of 1833 to his friend and biographer C.R. Leslie, Constable wrote: ‘Your regard for me has at least awakened me to believe in the possibility that I may yet make some impression with my “light” — my “dews” — my “breezes” — my “bloom” and my “freshness” — no one of which qualities have yet been perfected on the canvas of any painter in the world — ’ No, and they still haven’t, but Constable comes pretty close to that perfection, and continues to make an unimpaired appeal through his pictures. As he said: ‘The language of the heart is the only one that is universal.’

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