When John Constable was a boy he went for walks in the the Suffolk countryside. They were the most exciting thing he would ever do.
“There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth and every common sight,
To me did seem
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.” That is what Constable’s friend Wordsworth wrote when those same sights no longer moved him, Wordsworth, that way, and it distressed him.
Constable tried to sketch all the wonderful things he saw. And later when an art collector showed him this Hagar and the Angel by Claude Lorrain, the young Constable knew that he wanted to become a painter.
Hagar and the Angel by Claude Lorrain (Wikipedia file photo)
There was something truer in Claude Lorrain’s paintings of nature than in any he had ever seen. There was just that stillness—that sacredness—he felt while lying in the grass or sitting by his father’s old mill, watching the great clouds build for a storm. Before Claude many had painted scenes of the countryside but they were all false. Those painters had never really gone outside and looked at woods and lakes. Poussin had been praised for his pastoral scenes but they looked like this:
Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake Poussin (Wikipedia file photo)
His trees didn’t look like trees, the lakes like lakes, the mountains like mountains—even the blockish buildings looked phoney. Claude Lorrain was the first to give you the real feeling of nature—or some of it. Constable thought he might be able to do even better.
He enrolled in the Royal Academy Art School and learned how to paint. The first paintings he did were imitations of revered masters like Ruysdael, Annibale Carraci, Gainsborough, even Rubens. But soon he told a friend it was time for him to do his own thing. “For the last two years I have been running after pictures, and seeking the truth at second hand. I have not endeavoured to represent nature with the same elevation of mind with which I set out, but have rather tried to make my performances look like the work of other men…There is room enough for a natural painter. The great vice of the present day is bravura, an attempt to do something beyond the truth.” And he set about re-creating those scenes that burned in his memory; such as this one:
The Haywain (Wikipedia file photo)
And this one:
The Cornfield (Wikipedia file photo)
Here was Constable finally “representing nature with the elevation of mind with which he had set out”. The scenes are daydreams of the lost world of childhood and an attempt at moving the viewer as Constable was moved as a boy.
“The Child is father of the man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.” –from My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold by William Wordsworth
He spent hours outdoors with his sketchbook and even his oil paints.The sketches themselves were the first anyone had ever made in oils outdoors directly from the subject. He invented new techniques. He broke up the surface of his meadows by applying different tones, broken brushstrokes, and small flecks of pure color, like the French Impressionists fifty years later. After seeing his work in Paris, the painter Delacroix repainted the background of one of his pictures. “The green of his meadows can be applied to every tone”, he wrote.
Those studies and sketches prepared him to do the vast, moody Chain Pier:
The Chain Pier, Brighton (Wikipedia file photo)
To make the viewer feel his own veneration for nature he overrode one truth (exact copy) with another (feeling) and came up with an exaggeration like this one:
Stonehenge (Wikipedia file photo)
Here is another fine painting in the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum in Madrid: it is called The Lock (or Floodgate) 142cm x 121 cm (Visit museum page)
Many thanks for doing a post on Constable. he is one of my favourite painters of landscape.
He was much more than just the choclate box images that we see today.
He uses a splash of red in his paintings to break up the green so you can often see this on someones jacket or object in landscape
Landscape painting at its best!
Almost a weather-report-like fidelity, Constable must have done innumerable studies of those British cloudscapes.
How nice you juxtaposed these feats with those lines from Wordsworth!
Chris: I have just the splash of red among the green example to exhibit. I tacked it onto my post. Have a look.
Rich: Thanks. I had included more of the Wordsworth poem, in which he whines about not being able to feel the magic anymore, but I decided it was too long and left it out. I also left out a mean remark of mine about that last Stonehenge painting. I said it showed just that bravura and stretching of the truth that Constable had complained of when he started out.
Excellent story – I love the sky in Haywain.
have seen the painting, a good example,you actually have the dab of red in all of the ones you show of Constable, except Stonehenge, it almost became a motife for him. In the haywain for instance it is on the Horses harness.
Also as regard his Cloud sketches he would come back from sketching saying “I had been out skying”
I have some affinity with Mr. Constable in that he knew Salisbury Cathedral as I do and he spent his honeymoon here in Dorset. He was the popular English Artist, a landscape chap of my teens and sadly spoilt by the plastic reproductions liberally sprinkled across the world of cheap hotel sitting areas and grotty coffee bars; all so removed from such a spectacular talent. See a bit about his stay in Dorset here:
Suffolk is flat! Some people therefore find the sky more obvious! Mr C it seems from the last comment by Chris, to be one of them. Mr. C was extremely good at skys like Mr. R from across the water in Holland.
Thanks, Robert, for telling us about Constable and your Dorset. I wish I could see it some day. Silly me—I should have seen from his pictures that there were no hills to climb in Suffolk. In fact, the landscapes in the Haywain and Cornfield are very much like the ones I knew in Ohio. I think the sky is the star of the view with or without hills but it was nice to be reminded that Rembrandt country is just across the water from you.
It is sad that Constable’s masterpieces were used to decorate so many hotels and coffee bars. But that is the fate of many great works, not only paintings. Who wants to hear Vivaldi’s Four Seasons once more (in the men’s room!) or Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (in a soup ad) or to see the Sistine Chapel version of God creating man (in a car ad, e.g.) one more time? At least they are seen by millions and have become part of a common culture. Unlike so many good works of art which have simply gone under. You have found many and I like to see them at your blog.
Hi 100swallows. It’s amazing how you continue to choose artists that make me say: ‘Boy, I need to go look at them again’.
In the case of Constable he’s someone I’ve never looked enough at for the first time. On the other hand it’s rare that I’m not outside on a day with the sky full of clouds that I don’t think: “I’ve got to go look more at Constable.’ Though I’ve never really studied him he has insinuated himself into my consciousness as The Painter of Clouds. And not just clouds, but of clouds at their most beautiful and majestic. It is probably the clouds and sky more than anything else that give the feeling of the world being ‘appareled in celestial light.’
I grew up in the flatlands of Illinois, which probably is not that dissimilar to the flatlands of Ohio. I do wonder if people who live in flat areas have a greater appreciation of clouds, just as Mr. C and Mr. R did. I prefer to live in hillier or mountainous regions, and yet a blue sky scattered with clouds in their striking variations of whites, blues and grays is a glorious sight that’s probably best seen in a world that is flat!
Thanks again for a post that reminds people of some of the best art ever made and best artists who ever lived.
Thanks for the post on Constable- Americans haven’t had so much exposure to him, I think. Here’s another Constable quote for you:
“I know very well what I am about and that my skies have not been neglected, though they often failed in execution–and often no doubt from anxiety about them.”
Had take a guided tour of the John-Constable country while my time in England. Dedham, Willy House, Mill… worth every moment. Went back in time for a moment.
Nitin. Thanks. Lucky you. The rest of us will have to do that through Constable’s paintings.