John Constable, Precursor of Modern Art?

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One cannot blame British artists for their cutthroat politics in fighting for a place in the sun. To be noticed by the public and written about by art critics, these chaps would go to remarkable lengths. At the end of the day, the Royal Academy and admission into its famous annual Salon was all they dreamed about. Even the lucky ones, whose paintings were accepted, were prone to anxiety attacks, wondering: Will their painting be shown in the prestigious Main Gallery or be banished into the adjacent rooms? Will it be stuck so high up on the wall that no one can see it? With hundreds of paintings crammed wall to wall and floor to ceiling, the competition for attention was fierce. The ambitious artists who knew the game would smartly choose a religious, mythological, or historical subject for their painting, as those were considered the most worthy in the eyes of the Academy and general public.

By this point in the story, you've probably already guessed that I'm not talking about the cultural jostling among the so-called Young British Artists. No, I am talking about the slash-and-burn politics of the London art scene over two hundred years ago. The remarkable traveling exhibition on view at the Huntington Library brings together about sixty paintings and drawings by John Constable, a celebrated British landscape artist who lived and worked in the late 18th and first part of the 19th centuries.

At a time when the landscape genre was considered to be the lowest form of painting, Constable stubbornly stuck to it, obsessively drawing from idyllic vistas along the River Stour near his native Suffolk village in eastern England. He also understood that to elevate the status of landscape, he needed not only to demonstrate mastery of technique, but also to give to his paintings unprecedented scale. That's how his most famous landscapes, the so-called Six-Foot Paintings, were conceived. They were so skillful in their attention to detail and capture of daylight in all its permutations, that their acceptance into the annual Salon was virtually assured. What's more, he was lucky enough to have some of his paintings hung in the Main Gallery, but still, it was not enough. Critics, as well as the public, practically ignored him. Not until he was in his forties did he get recognition and develop a market for his art.

This exhibition is focused on pairing these Six-Foot Paintings for the first time with their sketches, whose unprecedented monumental scale is on par with the finished landscapes. Seeing the carefully finished landscapes with their tight brushwork next to what seem to be spontaneously executed full-size sketches, it's impossible not to gravitate toward the latter. Not only are the sketches seductive in their sense of immediacy and spontaneity, but their bravura brushstrokes make them look surprisingly modern.

However, one shouldn't be fooled into thinking that Constable executed these large sketches outdoors in one uninterrupted burst of creativity. He would bring back to his studio a number of small sketches made on location and then skillfully incorporate them onto one big canvas. Then he would set aside these large sketches as a necessary point of reference before embarking on the final, complete, and much more deliberately executed paintings.

This exhibition, which was ten years in the making, was first seen at the Tate Gallery in London and then at the National Gallery in Washington DC. Now it's our chance to enjoy this scholarly exhibition, which knows how to inform, as well as entertain and inspire its audience.

"Constable's Great Landscapes: The Six-Foot Paintings"
On view until April 29
The Huntington Library

All images ©

The banner image at the top of this page is John Constable, The White Horse, 1819
Oil on canvas, 51 x 74 inches, The Frick Collection, New York