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Sunday, October 3, 2021

My Art History: John Constable

One of Constable's "Six-Footers":
Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows
59.7”x74.7”, oil on canvas, 1831
National Gallery, Tate UK
(read its story here)

In the last “My Art History” post, I wrote about the Romantic painter, Turner.  John Constable (1776-1837) was of that same period, but his sensibility was entirely different.  Although I would classify him also as a Romantic, his landscapes, steeped in the pastoral and picturesque, mostly lack any depiction of the sublime, which was a hallmark of Turner's later work.

Constable took landscape painting into a new direction.  He meticulously studied the natural landscape, going on-location to gather reference material.  Unlike some other landscape artists of the time, who went into the field with a similar goal, he was the first to make his plein air sketches in oil.  From these well-observed field notes, he constructed his larger paintings, his “Six-Footers,” often first creating full-size sketches to explore composition before embarking on the finished works.

His working methods inspired many later landscape painters—the Barbizon School painters and the French Impressionists—to observe the landscape with a fresh eye:  "When I sit down to make a sketch from nature, the first thing I try to do is to forget that I have ever seen a picture.”

Constable was a homebody.  Although he traveled some, he preferred to paint where he lived, in Dedham Vale, on the Essex-Suffolk border, now often called “Constable Country.”   He wrote a friend, “ I should paint my own places best.”

Personally, I dislike this large studio paintings; they seem overly-designed and staged and lack the freshness of his field studies.  They are, however, well-observed, thanks to all his work in the field.  His cloud studies, I think, are some of the best.  Clouds are notoriously difficult to study, as they are mutable and fickle subjects.  I've found that it's often best not to paint clouds right away, but to just watch, to discern a pattern in their movements and shape-shifting, before committing  to paper or canvas.

Here are a few of Constable's cloud studies, followed by a couple of my own.

Cloud Study, Hampstead; Tree at Right / Constable
Royal Academy of Arts, London UK

Cloud Study / Constable
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven CT

Cloud Study / Constable
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne AU

Cloud Study, 1822 / Constable
Tate Britain UK

And now, two of my own:

Cloud study - 6B pencil / Johnson

"Clouds O'er My Valley" / Johnson
6x8 oil/Multimedia Artboard


Marion Boddy-Evans said...

I saw some of Constable's full size studio studies of his paintings in an exhibition at the V&A (which also has a wall of his cloud studies) and I liked them far more than the finished paintings. More evident brushwoek, not so polished.

Anonymous said...

I saw Constable's big paintings, his sketch paintings of clouds, and his small sketch books when I was an art student. I wanted to see what all the ridicule about his large works was all about and to see his sketches. His sketches prove he was a great artists, his cloud painting/rough sketch paintings were superb, and his big works were what I think were the fashion and his actual bread and butter at the time. I remember I did not expect much but was pleasantly surprised. His cloud sketch paintings, I would love to own some of those!