Thursday, March 13, 2014

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, by John Constable (1831)

After looking at the disgusting and depressing picture by Francis Bacon (1909-1992) Tuesday, I thought we’d cleanse our palette with a little more uplifting art news.  This landscape picture by John Constable (1776-1837), Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, painted in 1831, is now starting a UK tour, and is currently on show at the National Museum in Cardiff.  For anyone traveling through the UK in the next several months, it is essential viewing.

The picture, considered by many to be Constable’s masterpiece, shows Salisbury Cathedral under a heavy cloud broken by an arched rainbow, as seen from across the River Nadder.  Scholars have interpreted the picture as the artist’s attempt to come to grips with the recent death of his wife.

Constable himself thought highly of the picture, writing that it was better than anything I have yet done.  The picture was first exhibited at the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition in 1831 and later in a regional exhibition in Birmingham.  Constable wanted it to be viewed by as many people as possible, and this traveling show continues his wish well into the 21st Century.  The picture will stay in Cardiff until September before moving on.

Constable grew up in Suffolk and he painted so many landscapes there that the area in now known as Constable Country.  Constable’s happy marriage ended when his wife Maria died from tuberculosis in 1828.  This devastated the artist, and he wore black for the rest of his life.  He wrote to his brother Golding, the face of the World is totally changed to me.

In contemporary art world parlance, Constable is stodgy, boring and hopelessly twee.  We here at the Jade Sphinx feel differently.  On the contrary, his work is bracing, detailed, powerful and visionary.  Let’s take a closer look at this picture.

Following the death of Maria Constable, John joined Archdeacon Fisher in Salisbury, where the prelate encouraged him to create a picture for the Royal Academy.  Constable made sketches there for what would ultimately become this picture.

Though Constable made a study of rainbows, the rainbow here is not an “accurate” depiction.  Rather, it seems to be more symbolic of God’s covenant with man promising the sublime after a life of difficultly.  Constable was also inspired by poet James Thomson (1700-1748), whose poem The Seasons provided succor to the grieving artist.  In fact, Constable selected lines from the poem to appear alongside the painting’s title in the Royal Academy catalog. 

As from the face of heaven the scatter’d clouds
Tumultous rove, th’interminable sky
Sublimer swells, and o’er the world expands
A purer azure. Through the lightened air
A higher lustre and a clearer calm
Diffusive tremble; while, as if in sign
Of danger past, a glittering robe of joy,
Set off abundant by the yellow ray,
Invests the fields, and nature smiles reviv’d.

The arc of the rainbow ends at the home of Archdeacon Fisher, who has provided Constable so much support in his grief.  The rainbow is no mere dab of color to help the composition; rather, it is an affirmation of Constable’s faith in the face of crippling despair.  It is also no accident that the top of the cathedral spire stands out in the one bright spot of the overcast sky. 

Two other things to notice – both the cart driver talks to his companion, oblivious to the sky, but the dog in the foreground gaze openly at the rainbow, while the horses seem to bend their heads in reverence.  Man often misses the divine cues provided by the natural world, but some things are wiser than man.

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