On 13 July 1815, John Constable wrote to his fiancée, Maria Bicknell, about this and that. Interspersed with a discussion of the fine weather and the lack of village gossip, he added a disclaimer on the subject posterity would most like to hear about: his art. ‘You know that I do not like to talk of what I am about in painting (I am such a conjuror).’
Perhaps by that he meant he did not like to give away how he did his tricks. As Late Constable, the magnificent exhibition currently at the Royal Academy, makes clear, he was a true magician with paintbrush and palette. Before your eye he performs astonishing transformations. Take, for example, the little oil sketch ‘Rainstorm over the Sea’, c.1824–8.
It’s a picture of a sudden squall. A dark, mulberry-coloured cloud has appeared above the waves off Brighton beach (which are themselves a steely blue). Out to sea, the deluge is already falling in great slooshing curtains. Even the passage of the drops, cascading through the air, seems to be visible.
Constable has conveyed all this with half a dozen broad, brusque brush strokes, scything down his little picture. They remain obviously the marks of a wide brush loaded with thin pigment, the grooves left by the bristles undisguised. The absolutely remarkable thing is that Constable manages to make you see both at the same time: smears of paint which are, simultaneously, exactly like a downpour seen from a distance.
He performed that kind of miracle on a regular basis, as Late Constable makes clear. Even those who think they know his work intimately are likely to find it full of surprises. The fact is, we don’t know the art of this apparently familiar master all that well after all. The curator, Anne Lyles, makes the case that in the last 12 years of his life Constable (1776–1837) entered an extraordinary final phase as an artist, a period of unprecedented freedom, mastery and (often) looseness of touch.
Naturally, he was not thanked for it by most of the London critics and public. They admired smoothness and blandness in surface — what was known as ‘finish’. ‘My execution annoys most of them,’ the artist wrote to his friend Archdeacon Fisher. The white highlights he used to represent sparkling sunlight came in for particular denigration, being lampooned as ‘spotting’, ‘snow’ or ‘whitewash falling from a ceiling’.
In his later years, Turner often came in for equally rough treatment for his ‘extravagances’. The fate of the critics concerned, such as Constable’s tormentor Edward Dubois whose eyes ‘sparkled with wit and malice’, was to be remembered solely as the fool who insulted a great artist. But at the time such attitudes had an effect. Constable confessed to Fisher that he had applied an unusual quantity of ‘eye-salve’ to ‘The Cornfield’ (1826) out of a desire to sell it.
This raises the question of what he really wanted to do when he didn’t have to soothe the eyes the Regency art world. Are the wildest pictures the ones he liked the best (rather than the generally tamer ones he actually exhibited)? I certainly love them.
‘A Farmhouse near the Water’s Edge (“On the Stour”)’ (c.1834–6), for example, brings much later painters to mind: Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach, even Jackson Pollock. The subject is extremely ordinary: a tree on a short stretch of riverbank, with a humble house behind. But it becomes the centre of a swirling, flickering vortex in which leaves, clouds, water and light all play a part.
Just as amazing, to my mind, are many of Constable’s late works on paper. ‘View on the Stour: Dedham Church in the distance’, c.1836, does everything that the oils do with just a few puddles, sweeps and blots of brownish-black ink. It’s close to abstract but again everything’s there: church tower, burgeoning vegetation, majestic cloudscape (Constable famously said that the sky was ‘the chief organ of sentiment’ in a picture, but with him it is specifically the rolling, swirling clouds).
To later artists, how Constable painted — that ‘conjuring’ with a brush — was quite as important as what he depicted. This daring virtuosity was a large part of what other painters such as Delacroix, Géricault and Lucian Freud admired. The last of those once described ‘The Leaping Horse’ of 1825 (three sketches of which plus the final version are on show at the RA), as ‘the greatest painting in the world’.
Constable’s concentration on the every-day was influential too. Auerbach once extolled the audacity of his humble subject-matter. It was, he argued, ‘at least as shocking as Gilbert & George’s is: barges, rotting stumps. This was a person blatantly shoving rubbish into our faces and making grand, Michelangelo-esque compositions of it’ — which is not the standard take on ‘The Hay Wain’.
Right from the start the British have got Constable wrong. They’ve admired him as an exponent of English cosiness and failed to appreciate his painterly brilliance. This marvellous exhibition should open many eyes.