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 rural that it is hard to believe in the proximity of the filthy and encroaching town. Characteristically his Waterloo Bridge from Whitehall Stairs, which depicts the Prince Regent opening a new bridge in 1817, dragged on for year after year—“I have no inclination to pursue my Waterloo; I am impressed with the idea that it will ruin me,” he wrote in 1824—and was only exhibited, in an unfinished state, in 1832.
But, unlike many other artists disgusted with the “progress” and urban life of the nineteenth century, he did not turn away from them to rural solitudes, which indeed “oppressed his spirits” (how different from Wordsworth with whom he is so often compared!) or to a self-conscious concentration on peasent life—or such aspects of peasant life as could be found in England. The Barbizon painters, who—rather than the Impressionists—owe much to his example, yet differed from him just because of this. Millet, and later Van Gogh, exalt the peasant in a Tolstoyan spirit and portray him as a symbol of defiance to the menacing confusion around them. But Constable’s attitude to the figures in his landscapes is less romantic and more matter-of-fact. He depicts an alternative to the emerging railways and factories which was still (almost) valid. The work on which his countrymen are engaged never seems unduly arduous (but neither is it elegantly picturesque) and it certainly has no mystic overtones, but it is real work, essential to the economy of the country. Graham Reynolds has well said that “though it may seem paradoxical it is hardly an exaggeration to call him an industrial landscape painter” and has pointed out the accuracy with which he depicts the ploughs, locks, and mills, whose functioning forms the theme of so many of his pictures. And above this toil, dominating it and the whole feeling of the picture, is the ever changing sky.
DRENCHING RAIN and thunderstorms are hardly disasters in England, but for Constable they increasingly became symbols of his inner distress, and it is notorious that in the last, sad years, when his wife had died, he insisted that the prints made from many of his earlier, sunny landscapes should alter these compositions so as to produce a more rainswept effect. Some of his later pictures (in particular the newly discovered Hadleigh Castle) have an almost expressionist violence about them. In view of all this it is perhaps surprising to read (in a recent survey of popular tastes) that cheap color reproductions of Constable “never fall from favor.” He deeply and chauvinistically loved England—“think of the lovely valleys mid the peaceful farmhouses of Suffolk forming a scene of exhibition to amuse the gay and frivolous Parisians” was his ungracious reaction to success in France—and England has belatedly returned his love. But one sometimes wonders whether this love is always derived from a direct experience of the works. Reproductions tend to iron out the roughness and make him look excessively cozy, to flatter the national self image so assiduously fostered by travel posters and advertising clichés—and with the collapse of an important rural life, nostalgia sweetens the image still further. Coming back to the pictures again one is usually surprised by a certain element of harshness. “I shall never make a popular artist, a gentlemen and ladies’ painter,” he once wrote, but time has proved him wrong—and he himself was occasionally prepared to compromise. He was among the first of that sad and endless list of nineteenth-century artists who were not appreciated at their worth by their contemporaries, and he reacted to this still rather unusual situation in varying ways: sometimes with truculent integrity, at others with deliberate attempts to please. It need hardly be said that the most influential sections of informed modern taste have exactly reversed the judgments of his early critics. The pictures that were damned for their “lack of finish” are now the most admired, and it is even claimed that his true genius is best seen in the sketches which he never dreamed of exhibiting: This view has only recently been challenged.
CONSTABLE WAS LUCKY in his biographer. Leslie’s Memoir, first published in 1843, is surely among the finest Lives in English, but it too presents a somewhat softened portrait and has probably helped therefore to tame the grandly vigorous impact that his pictures can still make on those who come freshly upon them. Then followed a long gap, interrupted only in 1902 by the vast researches of Sir Charles Holmes, almost until our own day. Sir Kenneth Clark has written on him with beautiful insight, and R.B. Beckett has uncovered and partly published a vast amount of material relating to all the circumstances of his life. A few years ago Graham Reynolds catalogued all the artist’s works in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the largest collection in the world, and he recently produced a full-length study which is unquestionably the finest that has appeared. Parts of it are indeed so good that it seems at times like the masterly book which has for so long been urgently needed. But certain sections are disappointingly thin and its conclusion is so tame and so timid that the final words read as if added as an afterthought with almost no relevance to the painter so sympathetically studied in earlier pages: “Outwardly his life was a tempestuous battle, but the world he entered in his painting-room was a secluded garden, and no one has more completely communicated the euphoria of the English countryside.”
Of the two short books under review Mr. Baskett’s owes the more to Mr. Reynolds and is also the more rewarding. He gives a brief introduction on the part played by oil sketches in Constable’s development and follows this up with valuable notes and catalogue entries for the thirty-two illustrations in color, which are all taken from the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Mellon Collection in Virginia. These illustrations form the core of the book and they are exceptionally beautiful in themselves. Where comparison with the originals has proved possible I have derived the impression in nearly every case that the colors are a little too intense, and—as always—there are a few misleading patches. But on the whole the standard seems remarkable, and the slight distortions are not disturbing because the balance within each plate is maintained. Virtually every aspect of Constable’s art is covered, and the exhilarating freshness of these sketches retains its power and magic despite our familiarity with the higher-keyed landscapes of the Impressionists. The book will certainly help to correct the views of those many who, unable to visit London or Virginia, derive their idea of the artist from reproductions on calendars. But it should be remembered that the commendable fidelity which has been insisted on inevitably means that none of the large-scale sketches are included. A small size always tends to domesticate, and Constable is often more uncompromising than he appears here.
THE COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS provided for Mr. Peacock are hideous, and anyone obtaining both books should compare the two versions they provide of Brighton Beach with Colliers. Fortunately there are also a number of black-and-white plates, and as the texts are very different in emphasis the two books do not overlap. Mr. Peacock’s horizon is wider than that of most previous students of Constable—he brings in comparisons with Van Gogh and Far Eastern painters—and he is in fact more interesting when discussing general ideas than particular pictures. But his claims for Constable, though not in themselves excessive, often seem misdirected. Is it even remotely true, for instance, that “as time goes on, the influence of Constable and Turner on such men as Monet and Pissarro tends to become clearer and more convincingly documented”? Or that Constable’s art first helped to open the eyes of Corot to the possibilities of naturalism? Or that the sketch for Hadleigh Castle, of all pictures, is “a pioneer example of Impressionism”? But he has useful things to say about the meaning of Nature for early nineteenth-century artists and also about Constable’s sea pictures. The three essays which make up the book are somewhat disjointed, and on the whole it wavers rather uneasily between a popular introduction to the subject and a series of investigations into particular problems. There is a similarly haphazard quality about the footnotes and the notes to the pictures, many of which are unfamiliar and require much further elucidation than they get here.