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John Constable

John Constable recast the subject of the landscape and this most insular figure stands as a seminal influence in European nineteenth-century painting. To a slowly developed and interrupted grounding in the Academy and the rigorous demands of topographical rendering he added his admiration and understanding of Rubens, Claude, Ruysdael, and Gainsborough. His honesty and steadfastness set him in opposition to such prevalent cliches as brown and varnished tonalities, the Grand Style bravura, and the preference for the picturesque. All were attitudes which had grudgingly elevated this most pedestrian of subjects to one of the lowest rungs of Official Art.

His subjects and locales were few and limited, usually the rural countryside, but he knew them first-hand as a ruminative yet inspired son of the soil. His tools were diverse, his handling consummate, but his aims remained constant. His views, spaces, and composition vary, but he continued to immerse himself, single-mindedly, in the problems of depicting the infinite catalog of nature’s multitudinous conditions.

The generous fraction of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s total Constable holdings on view, circulated by the Smithsonian Institution, is a demanding experience. The painter himself valued these sheets highly, as inspiration and direct resources, with their fund of descriptive information. The graphic notebook-and-oil sketches span thirty-five years of mature production, and the small-scale formats are filled with evocative detail of a loose but miniaturist quality. Generally, the pencil drawings are richly accurate, the ink washes freely spontaneous, the watercolors highly tinted, and the oils, the masterworks, lusciously Venetian.

The surfaces are a delight, agitated in an all-over flicker of light and shade, the chiaroscuro of nuance. The subdivisions of vegetation move through the scale from seemingly molecular to granular to broken and textural, contrasting with broader sweeps of field and sky, in a remarkable variety of surface rendition. Constable renovated landscape painting by combining two theoretically opposed attitudes: scientific accuracy of observation and its simultaneous transmutation into poetic sensations or sentiments, in a keen balance, creating a portrait of a natural incident. The surface excitation directly reflects the accuracy of his perception of the intimately familiar as recreated in a straightforward but personally invented shorthand.

His motifs are singularly, purposefully unspectacular, attempting, in his own words, “to make something out of nothing.” Human activity is reduced to an accent of color; and rustic or man-made structures take their place among densely overwhelming foliage, and if standing boldly on a broad plain, act as a foil against the dominating sky.

For the central and unifying theme is light and its manifold expressions: the play of clouds, the hush of an enveloping mood, a heightened sense of still drama, or the pleasures of noonday verdure. His is the truth of a fresh innocence.

––Fidel A. Danieli