Constable Oil Sketches Watson-Guptill this Fall)
John Constable: The Man and His Work
“Yet dark ages may return, and there are always dark minds in enlightened ones…” Constable’s sadly perceptive remark brings him near to us. Its cautiously balanced pessimism is more appropriate to our confused times than the reactionary grandeur of Delacroix, who so much admired him as an artist, or the visionary optimism of Van Gogh. But he can be compared with these men for his wonderfully articulate intelligence, and like them—though on a far more restricted scale—his recorded comments and writings, on life as on art, are often hauntingly memorable; for like his paintings they are born out of true experience and conviction and owe little to received convention. But the phrase (lifted here out of an insignificant context) is also central to his art. He was profoundly aware of change—Benjamin West’s famous words of advice, “always remember, sir, that light and shadow never stand still,” must have been delivered to a man well prepared by temperament to welcome them—and he usually expected change to be for the worse. How often do storm clouds lower in the distance of some seemingly idyllic landscape! “Placid” and “serene” were for him words of praise, but the state of mind they describe was hardly won, and bears little relation to most of his greatest masterpieces.
His home life and childhood seem to have been happy (though an elder brother was mentally retarded), but his feelings of insecurity were deeply rooted. “What makes me dread this tremendous attack on the constitution of the country,” he wrote of the approaching Reform Bill of 1832, “is that the wisest and best of the Lords are seriously and firmly objecting to it…Do you think that the Duke of Wellington, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Copley, and Eldon, and Abbot, and all the wisest and best men we have, would oppose it if it was to do good to the country?” To us this reads like parody, but it may also recall the similar opinions of Cézanne, another insecure and deeply conservative genius who devoted most of his energies to recording the landscape that gave him birth and supported his early years.
SUCH AN ATTITUDE obviously affected his art. “Painting is with me but another word for feeling,” and he could only paint what he knew well and loved. He loved, above all, places whose human associations were intimate and long: old castles or humble cottages, for instance, which had belonged to the same family or the same owner for many years, cathedrals, and country pursuits, such as fishing or boat building. He hated the new and the urban: Brighton, so nostalgically elegant to us, “is the receptacle of the fashion and offscouring of London…the beach is only Piccadilly by the seaside,” but for once he was able to submerge such feelings and produce a series of masterpieces. He lived much of his life in London, but chose to paint only Hampstead Heath, an area that even now remains so …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.