Friday, November 21, 2014

Vale of Dedham, by John Constable (1827-28)

We continue to work our way through the fabulous exhibition at The Frick Collection, showcasing 10 masterworks from the Scottish National Gallery, with a glorious picture by John Constable (1776-1837).

We have written of our deep and abiding admiration of Constable’s artistry in these pages before.  Perhaps the greatest painter of weather ever, Constable had an uncanny ability to convey the magic of a place.  That sense of almost otherworldly beauty in the everyday world is illustrated perfectly in this picture, his last major painting of the Stour Valley and his definitive treatment of the East-English countryside.  The Vale of Dedham is a masterpiece.

Constable was born on the River Stour in Suffolk; his parents were Golding and Ann (Watts) Constable.  Golding was a wealthy corn merchant, and owner of a small ship, The Telegraph.  John was the second son, but his older brother was mentally disabled and John was expected to pursue the family business.  John dutifully worked in the business once leaving school, but a series of sketching trips in Suffolk and Essex made it clear that John was more artist than businessman.

Constable would paint the English countryside for the rest of his life.  Early on he met George Beaumont, a collector who showed young John a series of pictures that opened up his eyes to the possibilities of art; and Thomas Smith, a professional artist who encouraged John to paint (but suggested he remain in the family business).

In 1799, John persuaded his father to let him pursue a career in art, and the elder Constable provided a small allowance.  John entered the Royal Academy Schools and attended life classes and studied and copied the old masters.  He would exhibit paintings at the Royal Academy by 1803.  He was also a devotee of religious sermons and poems – and his sense of immanence translated into his art.

John had a childhood friendship with Maria Bicknell; once in love with her, he proposed.  The marriage was opposed by Maria’s family, who saw John as a social inferior; John’s parents approved, but would not support the couple until John was more financially secure in his art.  They were married in 1816.

John was not a very financially successful artist, and would struggle to raise his seven children.  In 1828, Maria became ill with tuberculosis and died; she was only 41.  Much like Allan Ramsay after the loss of his wife (see yesterday’s post), Constable never fully recovered from the blow.

Vale of Dedham is the result of a holiday trip in Suffolk in 1827 with his two eldest children.  Of the finished picture, Constable would write to friend John Fisher that he had painted a large upright landscape (perhaps my best).  The picture was well regarded when it debuted at the Royal Academy in 1828, and many consider it his finest work. 

This work really explains the genius of Constable.  The picture is teeming – trees, vegetation, lake, village in the distance, gypsy and child in the foreground, passing cow, hidden cottage, small bridge, distant boats…. In less gifted hands, this would be fussy stuff, but Constable makes all these pieces integrated parts of the overall landscape. 

For an outlandish comparison, think of Constable as a kinder, gentler Hieronymus Bosch.  Both painted scenes of overwhelming fecundity; in Bosch’s world, this density is a source of overwhelming horror.  To Constable, this density was mostly a matter of extreme awareness – overwhelming, perhaps, but also natural and organic.

Important, too, to Constable’s aesthetic is the sense of an England and English tradition unsullied by change.  The technological and scientific advances of Constable’s era were significant, and the Industrial Revolution threatened to change the look and manners of the English countryside for all time.  Like most sensitive souls, Constable was deeply aware of everything that is lost with each new technological era, and his work is suffused with a gentle nostalgia.

Finally – no one (Turner included!) painted the sky like Constable.  It isn’t merely a question of color, but of quality of weather.  Constable’s skies contain distant storms, areas of sun, omens locked in the clouds.  The novice uses a dab of white to paint a cloud, the genius uses his full palette.

Next Week:  More From the Scottish National Gallery at the Frick.

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