Constable: The Making of a Master @ Victoria & Albert Museum

This major exhibition aims to explain Constable’s training and influences, especially Dutch landscape painters, but also Old Masters like Rubens and Claude. So it includes rooms dedicated to the work of his predecessors and contemporaries, which he copied or owned, as well as lots of his sketches and the large scale draft paintings he did of the classic ‘exhibition’ works.

So there are full-scale ‘rough cuts’ of The Hay Wain, The Horse Leaping etc next to the famous final versions. These made me realise how very artful & calculating this painter of so-called Nature is; to put it another way, Constable is generally credited with being the founder of a whole school of Nature painting, but these sketches show just how carefully he arranged and composed ‘Nature’ to bring it in line with compositional models derived from much older artists. Lots of the compositions are borrowed from earlier painters – or are very skillfully contrived rearrangements of elements first set down in his various sketchbooks.

1. The exhibition has his tiny 5″ x 3″ pencil sketches for Boat-building near Flatford Mill next to the finished painting: the nine humans working in and around the real dock, scattered randomly around the scene as they go about their work – in the sketch – have been reduced to a carefully placed four in the final painting. The dominant figure, a rather forlorn-looking man sitting in the foreground, isn’t found in the pencil sketch at all, nor is the little girl over by a tree on the right, nor the wistful dog, bottom right.  The sketch is a miniature marvel of accuracy, and the painting follows it in outline and many details – but the final composition, particularly of the figures, is an artifice, a carefully created illusion.

2. Similarly, the draft painting of the Hay Wain has someone on a horse smack bang in the middle foreground, but this is removed in the final version, a change which highlights the distance between, and the poignant effect of, the dog staring wistfully at its master in the cart. In both paintings the disorder of Work or the ‘real world’ is carefully edited out to create an emotionally charged image.

Invisible War and Revolution

As I walked round I reflected that all these paintings were made – Constable was active – during the period of the Napoleonic Wars leading up to Waterloo in 1815, and on into during the turbulent years after 1815 – an era of unemployment and industrial distress, workers uprisings and political radicalism which was clamped down on hard by the repressive government of Lord Liverpool with its widely-hated Home Secretary Castlereagh. This is the period when both Byron and Shelley left England, revolted by its repressiveness and hypocrisy. None of that is reflected in these idylls. The only sign is the absence of signs – the editing out of Work and the reinvention of agricultural labour as timeless idyll.

3. The first oil draft of The Cornfield is an enjoyable impressionist study of a field seen at the end of a track between trees – the final version introduces a twee narrative: the boy in red taking a break from driving his docile sheep to lie on the grass sipping water from the pond – and another wistful collie dog turning its head to look at its master. (I began to think of Constable’s habit of inserting a wistful dog, its head generally turned against the direction of its body in order to look at its (presumed) master, as ‘the Lassie Effect’).

In every instance the move from draft to final version deliberately sentimentalises the composition.

Conclusion

This show transformed my opinion of Constable:

  • made me realise he was a far more savvy and sophisticated painter than I previously thought, extremely well-informed about art history
  • that Constable was highly contrived and calculating in the composition of his big ‘exhibition’ paintings, especially when it came to the human figures
  • made me realise he could be seen as the Father of Victorian sentimentality, the inventor of chocolate box tweeness
  • and understand why, for the last generation or more, most people with a feel for art have preferred the rough Nature sketches, the cloud studies and Brighton beach-scapes, to the sentimental chocolate box family favourites

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