Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Constable in Context

John Constable (1776-1837) was, along with J.M.W. Turner, a visionary who brought pure landscape painting into the spotlight. It had existed in Holland as early as the 17th century, and (in an idealized form) in the Romantic picturesque scenes of Gainsborough, but it was Constable and Turner who paved the way for the plein-air painters of the Barbizon School and later the Impressionists.

Constable grew up in Suffolk, where the rural landscape of canals, barges, mills and heavy horses became his muse. In the face of the Industrial Revolution, these ordinary scenes were a political and religious, as well as an aesthetic, commitment for him. He saw agriculture as the foundation for a stable society.

He spent two years at the London Royal Academy but preferred studying nature first hand. He often spent summers sketching outdoors, and in winter his large (often up to 6’) paintings were done in the studio. He was concerned with the accuracy of his sketches and noted time of day, effects of wind and weather, and specific relationships between plants, animals & elements. He focused on patterns of light and shadow, the “chiaroscuro of nature.” This emphasis on authenticity and spontaneous sketching outdoors as a counterbalance to classical painting resonated with French painters, and he received a gold medal at the Paris Salon in 1824 for The Hay Wain.

The only major painting he completed on-site was Boatbuilding Near Flatford Mill (top right), but as he grew older he painted many expressive plein-air watercolors, such as Stonehenge (below right).


Belsey, Hugh, From Gainsborough to Constable, Boydell & Brewer, 1991
Mendelowitz, Daniel Marcus, Drawing, Stanford University Press

- Sarah Judson

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