We are accustomed to thinking of landscapes in terms of grand vistas—the visionary storms and sunsets of J.M.W. Turner or the American sublime of Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt. But before the nineteenth century, landscape as an autonomous genre—rather than as mere backdrop to noble human or divine events—ranked low in the academic hierarchy. Thus, the English artist John Constable (1776–1837) broke new ground when he exhibited images of the countryside along the Stour River in Suffolk that measured six feet, a scale formerly reserved for history paintings. The traveling exhibition “Constable’s Great Landscapes: The Six-Foot Paintings” presents for the first time eight finished paintings paired with their corresponding full-size oil sketches, along with smaller oil sketches and drawings. Constable’s subject matter is regional and rural, nature as experienced by working people rather than by poets and alpine climbers. It’s a dynamic and changeable world—nature as process. There is no greater painter of clouds than Constable, who benefited from the new schematic classifications of contemporary meteorologists. Constable is a painter of immanence, not transcendence. This everyday pantheism sparks The Lock (1824), a depiction of the downstream gate of the Flatford Lock, with the tower of Dedham church in the distance. A man in a red vest strains against the mechanism as a barge waits in the flooded chamber. Water purls, clouds billow, light dances across a huge tree, plants sprout from the rich earth of the riverbank. Constable was pleased with his work: “It looks most beautifully silvery, windy and delicious—it is all health—the absence of anything stagnant.” The paint, thickly and exuberantly laid on, seems to be made of organic matter. These landscapes envelop the viewer, not only because of their sheer size but because of the pervasive light, which creates an illusion of three-dimensional space more subtle than that achieved with perspective diagrams. Sunlight warms the clouds and rooftops; the light seems cooler in the clouds reflected in the stream, materialized as a sheen of dragged white paint. Often the chief incident in the composition is off to the side, as in The White Horse (1819), or pushed, mid-stream, below the horizon line, as in The Hay Wain (1821). This apparent casualness belies a strong compositional sense. Constable was hardly naïve or untutored; he knew and admired the Dutch landscapist Ruysdael and the great classicist Claude Lorrain. While staying at a patron’s estate, he wrote to his wife that he “slept with one of the Claudes every night….If anything could come between our love it is him.” Yet Constable went beyond the carefully calibrated receding planes of Claude’s stage-set landscapes.
Even when he has a grand subject, he finds as much interest in the weather as in the principal feature, as in the romantic Hadleigh Castle (1829), with its ruined tower jutting up against tumultuous clouds. Hadleigh Castle was exhibited with a quotation from James Thomson’s poem The Seasons, praising “The desert joys/Wildly through all his melancholy bounds/Rude ruins glitter….” The most iconic site Constable ever painted was Salisbury Cathederal. In the full-size sketch seen here, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (c. 1829–31), the gothic spire seems—from the chosen angle—no higher than a stand of trees and as touched by wind-swept light as the horses pulling a cart across a stream. The excellent catalogue is edited by Anne Lyles of the Tate Britian, curator of the exhibition with Franklin Kelly of the National Gallery, Washington. Other scholars contributing to the catalogue are Sarah Cove, John Gage and Charles Rhyne ($55 hardcover, $40 softcover, published by Tate/Abrams). “Constable’s Great Landscapes: The Six-Foot Paintings,” after a stay at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., will be on view at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, February 3–April 29, 2007.