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.