“Constable’s Great Landscapes: The Six-Foot Paintings”

It’s more than a little funny that a show in the National Gallery of Art’s East Building—you know, the modern wing—would end up raising serious doubts about just how modern an artist’s work really is. Yet that’s exactly the effect of the current John Constable survey, “Constable’s Great Landscapes: The Six-Foot Paintings.”

The lasting impression of the artist that one takes from this show is best summarized thus: Boy, what a stick-in-the-mud. On view are 55 of the English painter’s works, most of them depicting different views of the same spit of land in Suffolk County where Constable grew up. This is not quite the same devotion to the familiar that was revealed earlier this year in the NGA’s “Cézanne in Provence” show. Whereas Cézanne returned to his rural home in pursuit of a revolutionary revamping of the act of painting itself, Constable poked around the Stour River valley in search of the picturesque—a received notion of the British countryside’s ideal beauty first advanced by William Gilpin in 1782. Wall and brochure texts highlight geographic fixtures within this bucolic area that fascinated Constable, linked as they were to his “careless boyhood.” To modern eyes, however, these treatments often smack of provincialism: Here’s the house of Willy Lott, sleepy tenant farmer; there are the barges drifting aimlessly down the Stour, yonder’s the ol’ Flatford Mill.

Take, for example, The Lock (1824). The piece bears all of the typical Constable trademarks: An expanse of organic matter—trees, plants, weathered wooden planks, and water—fills the lower third of the canvas. Above is a sky choked with clouds modeled in ominous shades of reddish gray and violet. As with most of Constable’s landscapes, the time of day appears to be noon, providing no strong shadows. In fact, there’s no real use of chiaroscuro at all, no interest in giving the illusion of heft to the painting’s objects and figures. Instead, Constable coats the surfaces of boats, leaves, and limbs with encrustations of light-yellow ochre and white, which defines the edges of things but otherwise creates spatial confusion by squeezing foreground and middleground together. It’s an eccentric technique bent on communicating the idea of the dazzle of light, if not necessarily the firsthand observation of it.

Arranged in a horizontal line near the middle of the canvas are four peasants at work. Throughout the show, Constable appears either uninterested in or incapable of showing convincing human figures. There’s no sense of anatomy, facial expressions, or even of gravity tugging on these doughy homunculi. Constable famously claimed to prefer trees to people, and his treatment of toiling human figures certainly seems to reflect this attitude. It should be remembered that the Suffolk property Constable painted belonged to his father; although the eldest son chose not to run his father’s mill, he would continue to view those lands with a sense of ownership and entitlement. Constable’s gaze is not disinterested, it’s satisfied—patriarchal, even. His peasants are marginal, integrated into the landscape, and cheerfully unreflective. They exist only to keep up the grounds for Constable’s delight, and while they’re at it, to provide a few eye-catching splotches of bright red by means of their vests and hats.

This was Constable’s public face: an ambitious painter of reasonably finessed landscapes, engaged in a decadeslong struggle to gain entrance to the Royal Academy. (He finally made it at age 52.) But the show wouldn’t be half as interesting—or Constable half as celebrated—if reasonably finessed landscapes were all that the artist produced.

Around 1818, Constable began making preparatory oil studies that were the same size as his final salon paintings—roughly 6 feet wide. Amazingly, most of these paintings have never been seen together before. Perhaps that’s because the studies remained something of a secret during the artist’s lifetime, never appearing in Constable’s correspondence. In “Constable’s Great Landscapes,” eight finished paintings hang side by side with these quasi-improvisational twins. Whereas the public Constable was smooth and typically fussed over details, it seems the private Constable got messy, piling clouds, trees, peasants, and horses onto his canvases in thick, reductive slabs of impasto.

The circa-1823 study for The Lock shows us Constable unbound by decorum. Its pitted, broken surface testifies to the action of a loaded palette knife sticking and slipping its way across a glossy-brown underpainting. The sky isn’t so much painted as it is spackled. Rather than making light skate across the edges of things, here Constable built a world of leaden, waxy clumps and broad strokes. There is real expressive power, but there’s also a less developed color sense and fewer varieties of mark and touch.

There are 12 known full-scale sketches, and as critics warmed to them in the 1930s and ’40s, Constable’s reputation was turned on its head. In an essay from the show’s catalog, Charles Rhyne tracks the evolving estimation of the artist’s oeuvre through the years. Perhaps the biggest transformation occurred in 1934 in Roger Fry’s Reflections on British Painting, where Fry went so far as to reject the finished paintings as aberrations, claiming the sketches to be Constable’s true body of work. Kenneth Clark echoed this judgment two years later, declaring in an exhibition catalog: “His first versions (they cannot be called sketches) of The Hay Wain and The Leaping Horse are the greatest thing in English art, and it is tragic to think that much of his time was spent in making from them dull replicas, finished for exhibition according to the timid taste of the day.”

For Clark’s generation, the freedom of Constable’s sketches had suggested the quasi-scientific, supposedly unaffected seeing of a wave of later French painters from Monet to Cézanne. Certainly Constable’s own words connect him to the impressionists: “[P]ainting should be understood,” he said, “not looked on with blind wonder, nor considered only as a poetic aspiration, but as a pursuit, legitimate, scientific, and mechanical.” Add this to the heroic scale that he chose for what was otherwise considered a minor form of painting—landscape—and Constable certainly looks like a plausible granddaddy for modernism. Constable’s concerns might have been strictly local, but the appearance of his paintings had an immediate impact on the continent. After seeing The Hay Wain (1821), Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix repainted sections of his own 1824 painting, Massacre at Chios, to emulate Constable’s energetic, broken brushwork.

Early on, buyers of Constable’s work didn’t always perceive such genius. A number of studies were repainted by other hands to make them look more like his finished pictures. But Constable’s reputation as a modern master was fully in effect by 1951, when the full-sized sketch for Salisbury Cathedral From the Meadows (1829–1831) was stripped of its overpainting. Since then, other paintings have been cleaned to show the fast and loose Constable—most recently The White Horse (1819), which NGA conservators returned to its primordial slashed and scrubbed glory in the ’90s.

In arguing for the sketches as Constable’s true body of work, scholars have pointed to Stoke-by-Nayland (1835–1837), designating it Constable’s crowning achievement. As textbook authors like Frederick Hartt argue, the looseness of the artist’s sketches finally emerged in his mature style. The scene shows a church in the far distance; diminished plows, horses, and people in the foreground are scratched in place like bare skeletons of unearthly highlights. With its sky of choppy white smears against a dark ground and its allover agitation of dark masses, cut into by broken slashes and apostrophes of white, yellow, and earthy red, it is indeed powerful and assured, if overstated. As Hartt described it: “The symphonic breadth of the picture, and its crashing chords of color painted in a rapid technique…bring to the finished painting the immediacy of the color sketch.”

Yes, as Constable grew older, the difference between the appearances of his studies and finished works did narrow a bit. After the death of his wife in 1828, for example, the palette knife began to take a prominent role in the construction of all of his paintings, not just his sketches. But by the mid-1980s, it became clear to scholars that Stoke-by-Nayland was never intended to be a finished work at all. Instead, it was a study for a finished work that never happened—a train of thought derailed rather than the culmination of an idea gathering force.

As it turns out, Constable took significant pains to perfect his final products. Close examinations of even his most finished paintings reveal all manner of radical rethinks and aesthetic surgeries. He glued strips of canvas onto the edges of pictures to expand them. He cropped his canvases, hacking their edges away or restretching them. It should come as no surprise that he had a hard time finishing pictures for the annual salons: While everyone else was applying their final varnishes, Constable was struggling with eleventh-hour issues, completely repainting whole sections of pieces that were dishearteningly still wet. The sketches, meanwhile, were usually never stretched, instead tacked up to the wall of the studio. They remained strictly private, unavailable for public consumption.

Although what an artist intended to say in his work may not always determine what he actually has said, to disregard the terminus of every creative thread Constable produced is…well, a little kooky. It’s almost like throwing out all of an author’s published novels in favor of the notes found floating around in an e-mail folder. For all of Constable’s vaunted modern techniques, his ideas about social order were pretty regressive. A stout Tory, he put faith in maintaining an ancient, repressive social order—and his paintings show that. In the finished version of Salisbury Cathedral From the Meadows (1831), for example, dark clouds gathering over a church are limned with impossible white lights and bisected by a rainbow that wasn’t actually there (Constable apparently cribbed it from Jacob van Ruisdael’s 17th-century allegorical landscape, The Jewish Cemetery). Whether the picture was a dig at attempts at parliamentary reform of the church, or indicative of a more personal relationship with faith—or even a nod to his super-Tory friend, Dr. John Fisher, who owned the house depicted at the end of the rainbow—it’s far from being a simple perception of the physical facts of rural life.

Constable’s aim was to impose his own narrative of rural English life over his collected observations. He was re-establishing the rural dreamscapes of his boyhood and resisting the intrusions of reform—the result of which he predicted would be to put “the government into the hands of the rabble and dregs of the people, and the hands of the devil’s agents on earth.” Fry rightly celebrated the formal inventiveness of Constable’s sketches. But for Fry, art was an imaginative realm completely removed from life. He therefore missed the significance of the paintings as representation.

Taken as such, Constable seems much less of a visionary and much more of a calculating, self-conscious elitist. But more than avante- or arrière-garde, he emerges as simply human—which makes the breadth of his accomplishment all the more unlikely. CP