Art In History Art Blog
On to Constable, my kindred spirit. Perhaps not as great in the fullest sense as Cezanne or Rembrandt, but wonderful in his sensitivity to the familiar in nature. He never left England, and did not travel very widely there, going only to Brighton, Weymoutn or Salisbury, within easy reach. How different his subjects are from those of his contemporary Turner, who always sought out the magical transforming moments in nature: sunrise, sunset, monumental storms. Constable made his art from that which was most familiar in his surroundings, seeing it with a sensitivity which was unmatched until the next generation.
Yes, he did break new ground, despite his unambitious enterprise. He understood the role of the sky in setting the mood in landscape better than any other artist before or after. He called the sky "the chief organ of sentiment in nature", and you can see it in all his works. He obviously owes something to Dutch 17th century landscape (which I will get back to another time!) but in addition to making the clouds a major player in his work, he sees for the first time that sky light is reflected in EVERYTHING, not just in the water. I doubt if you can see it in the reproduction provided, but in his Dedham Vale, the blue of the sky is reflected from the grass and the trees. Artists had never noticed this effect before, but would soon be seeing it with him.
Constable is still in the tradition of grand studio works to be presented at the Royal Academy. Today, with the Impressionist to break us free, we probably admire his direct sketches from nature, such as the view of Weymouth Bay, more than his larger works, and I like to think that he did too. These sketches are clearly complete in themselves in our eyes, fully realized but more vibrant and truer to the moment than the presentation pieces. Even the sketches of clouds are fully satisfying to our modern eye.
But I also love his presentation works for their deep grounding in the familiar world. When we look at a work like "The Cornfield", we can pick out the traditional devices that landscapes "should have"; the side screens, the view into distance, the path into the work, carefully salted with events to pique your interest. But none of that gets in the way of feeling the hot summer day, smelling the heavy musk of summer scents, feeling at home.