John Constable - His Art
( Originally Published 1909 )
IT may be said with a large measure of truth that a profound love of nature made Constable an artist. The familiar scenes of his earlier years were regarded by him with such affection that he felt impelled to try to paint them. He knew by heart every foot of the country in the immediate neighbourhood of Bergholt and Flatford. Every reach of the willow-fringed river Stour was stored in his brain, down to the smallest details; every tree in the fields and lanes round his father's mills had been studied until he could draw each one from memory. The thatched cottages and farm-buildings amid the woodlands, or standing in the middle of a sea of golden corn, and the old churches whose gray towers could be seen rising above the distant pastures, he was never tired of painting. His apprenticeship to the milling-business, incomplete as it was, not only gave him a life-long affection for depicting old wooden water-wheels, but first taught him to study the sky, an essential part of the training of the wind-miller, to whom every change of weather is important. In this way he obtained that accurate knowledge of the shapes, movements, and colours of clouds, which forms so striking a feature in his art; and this knowledge he increased continually throughout his life by the constant making of large sky-studies. The "weather" of his pictures is always one of the first things to attract the spectator. The bursting of the rain-cloud, the sunlight struggling through masses of piled-up cumulus, the rush of the wind through the bending tree-tops, the arc of the rainbow stretched across the leaden path of the departing thunder-storm, or the sparkle of grass and foliage after a summer shower, these were the effects which he best loved to paint, effects which he had so constantly studied that he could render them with a vivid realism. Constable's skies were no mere flat white sheets acting as a simple foil to his subjects, but a dominant part of the composition, just as they are in nature.
In his own day, Constable's point of view, and his methods of realizing it in paint, were quite new, and his art, therefore, was only appreciated by the few. The old traditions as to what should go to the making of a fine picture were still the sheet-anchors of the critics, and governed most of the popular landscape painting of the period. His earlier efforts, modest, quiet, and aiming only at a simple realism, passed unnoticed on the exhibition walls; and when, later on, his powers developed, and his portrayal of nature grew more vigorous and vivid, his pictures were subjected to much abuse and scornful criticism. His recognition by the Royal Academy was tardy. Many of the Academicians still regarded landscape as a minor branch of historical painting only worthy of consideration when it aimed at the "grand style." He was elected an Associate when thirty-three years of age, and had to wait for ten years longer before full honours were accorded him.
It must not be imagined, however, that his art lacked all encouragement during his lifetime. The little band of his admirers constantly received new adherents, and many of his pictures found purchasers, though a number of them remained in his possession until the end. In France his success was immediate, and his art had great influence on a number of the younger landscape painters. When his pictures were first exhibited in the Louvre in 1824, the revolt against classicism was just beginning—a classicism more severe and more widely spread than in England, where Wilson and Gainsborough had laid the foundations of a real school of native landscape in the previous century, and where such men as Turner, Girtin, Cozens, and the early water-colourists were already at work —men whose early training had been on traditional lines, but whose practice was based upon a sincere study of Nature, resulting in the gradual throwing off of the useless fetters which only hampered their progress. In France the influence of David still reigned supreme, so that Constable's fresh, realistic painting came as a revelation, and was felt more vividly, and had more immediate effect, than in England. Here the true appreciation of the vital qualities of his art grew more slowly, and was far from universal for many years after his death.
Even in 1853 it was still so little understood that the editor of " Bryan's Dictionary of Artists " spoke of it as follows: "His mode of painting was peculiar; he neither imitated the ancient masters, nor the modern; whether he really copied nature, time will discover. The singularity in his pictures makes them striking. His skies are clouded, and his clouds turbulent; they are charged with thunder, lightning, and rain; and when the shower falls, instead of verdant freshness, his trees and meadows are covered with fleeces of snow. These appearances his admirers consider the proofs of strict attention to nature; that they truly exhibit her gloomy grandeur; and that the scattered lights are sparkling touches of genius distributed with a masterly hand. All this may be so; it is useless to dispute on a matter of taste; it will be for connoisseurs fifty years hence to decide on the merits of Constable's pictures."
In reading Leslie's " Life" of the artist one is struck by his constant protest against tradition. He never hesitated to express, and with the ut-most vigour, his scorn for the connoisseur of his day, who only admired a picture when it was buried under a coat of dirty varnish, and built up on certain formulae, against which it was high treason to protest. He had, on the other hand, the deepest admiration for all that was finest in the painting of the old masters, and a thorough knowledge of the work of earlier painters of many schools. In his younger days he spent much time in copying their pictures, a practice he carried on from time to time throughout life. He took a particular delight in Claude, and copied his landscapes with great skill whenever he got the opportunity. Ruysdael, Hobbema, and Rubens, among others, he studied in a similar way. In his letters he frequently writes with the greatest delight and appreciation of such painters as De Hoogh, Watteau, Gainsborough, and Turner, while his praise of the younger Cozens was extravagant. His own art, too, was influenced by his close study of the earlier men, and his system of chiaroscuro, in particular, was based upon their methods. In this way his art is connected with the masters who had preceded him, though he developed it upon lines which were essentially new ones, owing nothing except to his own genius.
Upon entering the Academy Schools he was obliged to follow the ordinary routine of work, and so gave a certain amount of study to figure painting; but he never followed up this branch of art, in which he was not fitted to excel. With the exception of his portraits, his only serious attempts beyond the limits of landscape painting were the two altarpieces already mentioned, which gave little promise of success in the direction of religious or historical art. He might, no doubt, have won for himself a very respectable position as a portrait painter if he had confined himself to it, as his relations wished him to do, but his love of landscape was too strong. He painted portraits from time to time at various periods of his career, and the best of them have many charming qualities. This was, no doubt, in some degree owing to the knowledge he gained when making copies of a number of family portraits by Sir Joshua and other eighteenth-century artists, upon which he was employed as a young man. He was never really happy, however, except when at work upon a landscape.
His first efforts were based upon his studies of the Dutch masters, but from the beginning he was anxious that his art should be untrammelled by tradition; and was always striving to get back to nature, and to learn from her alone. He snatched at every opportunity of escaping from London into the country, where he gave himself up to painting out of doors, working from morning until night in solitary communion with nature. His art was late in its development, and even when he was twenty-five gave little promise of more than ordinary talent. His study and imitation of the older masters continued until after his thirtieth year, while his technical skill grew gradually more certain and assured; and it was not until r 8o6, or thereabouts, that his originality began to make itself evident. Until then art and nature had claimed him alternately; but it was nature which finally conquered. His true inspiration he always found in the rural scenes he loved so well. As Mr. C. J. Holmes, when comparing him with Millet, well puts it: " He regards them rather as things to be loved in them-selves than as pictorial material to be disposed this way or that, as an artist's taste or knowledge might suggest. Hence his tendency, in holding the balance between nature and art, is to an all-round compromise, and not to that abstraction and emphasis of particular facts which characterizes the best painting of Millet. Millet thus, in spite of all his ` local colour,' is the property of the whole world. Constable remains the unique master of English rustic scenery."
Constable set himself to paint nature in her true colours. He saw that the most characteristic feature of his native country was the greenness of her woods and fields, and so he determined to paint- her. Summer was his chosen season, when the foliage was at its brightest and finest. Only on rare occasions did he attempt to depict autumn with its glowing tints of red, yellow and brown. Green trees and green grass, illuminated through and through with sunlight, or glittering with moisture after recent rain, with patches of blue sky seen between masses of fleecy clouds, these were the effects which appealed to him most strongly, and these he strove to render in their natural tones of cool colour.
The aspect under which he painted English scenery was a new one. Until his time the ordinary practice had been for the artist to paint with the sun behind him, out of the picture, low down on the horizon, suffusing the whole landscape with a golden haze, producing those effects which Claude and Cuyp rendered so finely. Constable, on the other hand, liked better to work with the sun high above his head, out of the canvas, but still in front of him ; and painted almost always under the sun. This was one of the chief causes of the earlier adverse criticism of his pictures, as his point of view was too novel to be thoroughly understood, or, at least, appreciated by those who had been taught to regard the more usual method as the only artistic way of rendering sunlight in landscape. Constable's greatest peculiarity in their eyes, which arose largely from this habit of his, was the sparkle and glitter of white lights upon his foliage. This they laughed at as spotty, splashy, and meaning-less, and nicknamed it "Constable's snow." He adopted the use of spots and points of pure white paint as the best method at his hand by which to render the bright light which all foliage, especially after rain, reflects from its countless surfaces, when seen between the spectator and the sun. As he grew older this brightness and sparkle, which he saw more and more on all sides, made still greater appeals to him; but his point of view was not immediately understood.
The breezy freshness of our English climate was an ever growing delight to him. He loved the majestic roll of the clouds, and the brisk showers of rain which intensified the vivid greens of the meadows, and the flying shadows over hillside and valley. High noon was his ideal painting hour; rarely did the mysterious beauty of dawn or the solemnity of fading evening-light tempt his brush, though the few canvases in which he has depicted them display an imaginative feeling such as is not always to be found in the great body of his work. His continual delight in tempestuous weather called forth an amusing comment from Fuseli, who said, in his broken English, " I like de landscapes of Con-stable; he is always picturesque, of a fine colour, and de lights always in de right places; but he makes me call for my great coat and umbrella."
His realism was the realism of effect rather than of line or form, although neither line nor form were neglected in his earlier pictures. In these the drawing is accurate enough, and the details of the subject indicated with great truth to nature. A number of his studies of trees are to be seen at South Kensington, and these show how well he could draw, even with minute exactitude, when necessary; but as his art grew bolder, and his desire to set down the more evanescent effects of nature more intense, much of the detail was deliberately sacrificed in the attempt to render what were, to him, natural facts of much higher importance. Yet the art of his earlier period, in which he was content to copy nature at her simplest, and amid the most homely scenes, was, in some respects, finer than anything he accomplished afterwards. In the picture of Boat Building, already spoken of, painted in 1814, he has given many of the details with Dutch-like accuracy, and, with the cool grays and greens of his colour scheme, has reproduced, with admirable effect, the atmosphere of a hot summer's noon.
At his maturity the qualities for which he chiefly searched were, in his own words, " light—dews—breezes—bloom—and freshness—not one of which has yet been perfected on the canvas of any painter in the world." Chiaroscuro was another main aim in his painting, and one which he was anxious to get at any cost. " I was always determined," he writes, " that my pictures should have chiaroscuro, if they had nothing else."
His method was the exact opposite of that followed by the English Pre-Raphaelites, who patiently finished their pictures inch by inch. Constable carried on every part of his subject together, first laying in all the masses in a dead colour, and then working in the details gradually, so that at no time was any particular portion advanced much beyond the rest, until the whole picture was finished. In this way he was able to give his attention to those subtle gradations of light and shade and colour which to him were the loveliest aspects of landscape, and in capturing them for the admiration of posterity he was obliged to abandon a too careful delineation of details of form. This constant attempt to depict these more evanescent truths, and that brightness of nature in sunlight which is almost beyond the power of mere paint to express, was, no doubt, the chief cause of his peculiar method of execution, which was laughed at by many of his con-temporaries. He became a brilliant, perhaps too brilliant wielder of the palette knife, the use of which he sometimes carried to excess. The almost immoderate use of it can be seen in such pictures as The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, and the full-sized studies of the Leaping Horse and The Hay-Wain.
These unusual methods of manipulation were not practised by him with any idea of catching the public eye by means of eccentricity, for he was always scornful of public opinion. He gradually evolved them in his search after a perfect rendering of those grand and more transient atmospheric effects which he found it impossible to express with freedom by a more laborious finish or execution. By laying in most of his pictures with the palette knife he obtained great broadness and flatness of touch, and also the full purity of the pigments he used.
His study of nature had been so careful and so unceasing, and his memory was so accurate, that he gradually gave up painting pictures directly from the scene itself, but relied instead upon studies and sketches made out of doors. It was his frequent habit before beginning an important canvas, to make a large sketch of the subject of the same size as the finished work, to which he made constant reference. His procedure on such occasions is described by Redgrave as follows: "The subjects are laid in with a knife, with ( great breadth and a grand and large manner. ) Various glazings have then been passed over the parts, to bring together and enrich them (even the skies are glazed)—and then the whole has again had enhancing points of colour added, brightness and daylight being obtained by further draggings and knife-touches. With the exception of the glazings it would seem as if the brush had not been used upon them; hence there is a complete absence of any detail. Having carried the study thus far he would leave it without further completion, perhaps fearing to lose what he was so satisfied with—and begin again on a new canvas, endeavouring to retain the fine qualities of the studied sketch, adding to it such an amount of completeness and detail as could be given without loss of the higher qualities of breadth and general truth." Such studies as these Constable looked upon as his working-tools, and very seldom parted with them. He had no objection, he used to say, to part with the corn, but he would not let go the field which grew it. They enabled him, in fact, to keep his finished work up to the right pitch. No completed picture can equal the brilliancy and abandon of a sketch, because the vividness of a rapid impression becomes dulled in the process of so-called " finish."
These qualities of his art, this perpetual seeking after freshness, even at the sacrifice of " breadth " and repose, this scattering of light and shade in emulation of natural sunshine, were too little understood by the professional critics of his day. Even Ruskin was unjust to him, possibly because he lacked the infinite variety and poetic imagination of Turner. He cannot help praising him for his loving, faithful study of nature, but he qualifies his appreciation by adding: " The feelings of Constable with respect to his art might be almost a model for the young student were it not that they err a little on the other side, and are perhaps in need of chastening and guiding from the work of his fellowmen.
We should use pictures, not as authorities, but as comments on nature; just as we use divines, not as authorities, but as comments on the Bible. Constable, in his dread of saint-worship, excommunicates himself from all benefit of the church, and deprives himself of much instruction from the scripture to which he holds because he will not accept aid in the reading of it from the learning of other men."
The answer to such criticism is a simple one. Constable did make use of the learning of other men, and carried this habit throughout his life. That he would not allow the lessons he learnt from them to stand in the way of his endeavour to depict certain aspects in nature which had not hitherto been attempted in art is equally true. Wider knowledge of his paintings would have made this clear to Ruskin, who proceeds with further sweeping assertions, which display a strange lack of power to appreciate the finer qualities of the artist's work.
" Unteachableness," he says, " seems to have been a main feature of his character, and there is a corresponding want of veneration in the way he approaches nature herself. His early education and associations were also against him; they induced in him a morbid preference of subjects of a low order. I have never seen any work of his in which there were signs of his being able to draw, and hence the most necessary details are painted by him insufficiently. His works are also eminently wanting both in rest and refinement; and Fuseli's jesting compliment is too true ; for the showery weather in which the artist delights misses alike the majesty of storm and loveliness of calm weather; it is greatcoat weather and nothing more. There is a strange want of depth in the mind which has no pleasure in sunbeams but when piercing painfully through clouds, nor in foliage but when shaken by the wind, nor in light itself but when flickering, glistening, restless and feeble. Yet, with all these deductions, his works are to be deeply respected as thoroughly original, thoroughly honest, free from affectation, manly in manner, frequently successful in cool colour, and especially realizing certain motives of English scenery, with perhaps as much affection as such scenery, unless when regarded through media of feeling derived from higher sources, is calculated to inspire."
This criticism is, in the main, strangely unjust. His early associations, far from being against him, were the main cause of his passionate Iove of nature, and made him a painter. It is impossible to regard his subjects as low ones, and it is not easy to understand what Ruskin means, unless he uses the term as opposed to grandiose. Constable painted the scenes in which he took the most delight. " I love every stile and stump, and every lane in the village," he writes in 1799, "so deep rooted are early impressions;" and that feeling remained with him throughout life. It is not true that he could not draw; even a casual acquaintanceship with the innumerable studies he made for his pictures, particularly of trees and clouds, is sufficient to show the unfairness of such a statement, based, no doubt, on insufficient data. The "necessary details" of his pictures were purposely neglected by him in order that he might concentrate his efforts upon the rendering of what were to him higher and more important truths. The accusation of want of reverence in approaching nature would have been laughed at as absurd by those who knew him intimately. True veneration is to be discerned in this sentence from a letter to his wife, written from the country in early spring: "Every-thing seems full of blossom of some kind, and at every step I take, and on whatever object I turn my eyes, that sublime expression of the Scriptures, ' I am the Resurrection and the Life,' seems as if uttered near me." Again, what could be more reverent than this passage, taken from his last lecture: "The young painter who, regard-less of present popularity, would leave a name behind him, must become the patient pupil of Nature.... The landscape painter must walk in the fields with a humble mind. No arrogant man was ever permitted to see Nature in all her beauty. If I may be allowed to use a very solemn quotation, I would say most emphatically to the student, ` Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth."
The charge of lack of variety in his point of view was voiced amusingly by his friend Fisher, who wrote to him in 1824: "I hope you will diversify your subject this year as to time of day. Thomson, you know, wrote not four Summers, but four Seasons. People get tired of mutton at top, mutton at bottom, and mutton at the side, though of the best flavour and smallest size." Constable's answer to this charge is well worth quoting. He knew so well what he could do best, that though always ready to listen to criticism he paid little heed to it.
"I am planning a large picture," he wrote in reply, "and I regard all you say, but I do not enter into that notion of varying one's plans to keep the public in good humour. Change of weather and effect will always afford variety. What if Vander Velde had quitted his sea-pieces, or Ruysdael his water-falls, or Hobbema his native woods? The world would have lost so many features in art. I know that you wish for no material alteration, but I have to combat from high quarters—even from Lawrence—the plausible argument that subject makes the picture. Perhaps you think an evening effect might do; perhaps it might start me some new admirers, but I should lose many old ones. I imagine myself driving a nail; I have driven it some way, and by persevering I may drive it home; but quitting it to attack others, though I may amuse myself, I do not advance beyond the first, while that particular nail stands still. No man who can do any one thing well will be able to do any other different thing equally well; and this is true even of Shakespeare, the greatest master of variety."
This creed he always carried out in practice. He struck at few nails, but they were large ones. He had sense enough to see that his genius was not many-sided, and so made choice of certain restricted aspects which appealed to his artistic sense more keenly than any others, and gave up his whole life to painting them more truthfully and powerfully than they had ever been rendered before. The nails which he drove home most deeply, were strength, depth, brilliancy, and vitality. His art, as Ruskin said, was essentially manly and English; and though it is impossible to follow the great art-critic in his statement that Constable did not know how to draw, yet it is perfectly true that as a draughtsman he was far below such men as Turner and Gainsborough, having little of their grace, delicacy, and swiftness and certainty of touch. The quality of force in his handling he sought for even at the sacrifice of refinement. " He painted prose, if you will," wrote Mr. James Orrock, " when compared with Turner, but it was splendid and virile prose, thrilling with sympathy and life."
Force is undoubtedly one of the most marked characteristics of the large body of sketches and studies, and hasty memoranda of effects, which he left behind him, very many of which are, happily, available to the student in the Victoria and Albert Museum, through the generosity of the Misses Maria and Isabel and Mr. Lionel B. Constable. It is, of course, impossible to attempt any description of them here. One of the most vivid and brilliant of them is the Brighton Beach (see p. 64), while the Mill near Brighton, No. 588, only a few inches square, is an admirable example, as within this small space is to be found the expression of all those qualities which meant the most to Constable. The sunlight streams through the heavy clouds, and a black storm of rain is breaking an one side. It is filled with movement, glitter, and colour, and that freshness and "sparkle" which will be always associated with his name. Other brilliant little studies in oil will be found in the National Gallery, notably four bequeathed by Mr. Henry Vaughan. No. 1819, Stoke by Nayland, Sufolk, is extraordinarily powerful, and seen at a little distance, the dark olive green of the trees, and the bright blue and purple of the sky stand out with startling effect. It has little form, and has been slashed in with a palette knife with the utmost vigour. Its impressionism is curiously modern. The depth and brilliancy of the colour, and the great sense of movement in each of these four sketches is most striking.
No one has written with such sympathetic appreciation, or with so much knowledge of Constable and his aims, as Mr. C. J. Holmes, whose two volumes are essential to the student who wishes to grasp the true position and influence of the painter in the history of English landscape art. He is of opinion that Constable had reached his highest point some years before his death, and that during the last decade of his life his search after certain qualities in painting was gradually becoming so exaggerated in its expression that his art as a whole would have deteriorated. "The passion for brightness, movement and glitter," he says, " becomes increasingly predominant, to the exclusion of graver artistic qualities, till at times the result is strikingly modern ... In certain sketches he went still further, and by a loose tremulous handling caught the effect of atmospheric vibration.... The logical result of such experiments is scientific imitation rather than Art, and, though a longer life might have enabled Constable to become even more modern than he is, it is doubtful whether he would have added to his fame as an artist.
"The actual scope of his achievement is already wide enough. In early life his aim had been to find out how far the cool fresh colours of the skies and streams and fields and trees of his beloved Suffolk could be suggested within the then accepted limits of oil-painting. In middle age this aim was complicated by the desire of rendering effects of wind and storm, so that his work became the channel of deeper and stronger emotions than those aroused by rusticity in its every-day aspect.... After his fiftieth year Constable became a devotee of light and air. He found, as the moderns have found, that this devotion was incompatible with the traditional handling of oil-paint—with smooth shapely brush work passing by adroit transitions into a harmonious foundation of broken grey or brown, and afterwards mellowed by a warm glaze. To suggest the shimmer of wet grass and leaves in sunlight, or the intense brightness of the summer sky, he had to use paint fresh from the tube, loading parts of his canvas with spots and masses of pure pigment, so that no single atom of illumination might be lost. His method, in fact, was almost identical with that of our modern scientific painters except in one import-ant respect.
"The essential difference is that Constable retained to the last his sound foundation in monochrome. Paintings like The leaping Horse, The Valley Farm and The Cenotaph, with all their splashing and spotting and scraping and loading have thus a certain unity and dignity, which enables them to hang by the side of the paintings of the old masters, without looking garish or undecided. . . . It is only necessary to compare his work with that of his predecessors or contemporaries, to realize how vast was the revolution that he initiated, more especially in the matter of colour, which he treated with a combination of frankness and temperance as yet unsurpassed. No man has hitherto combined so much of that beauty of aspect which we all admire in the Art of the past, with so large a measure of the wind and sunshine which have become the conditions of the painting of our own day. Had Constable carried realism further, it might have been difficult to claim so much for him."
His range may have been a narrow one, but within its limits he was one of the most sincere painters this country has seen. He was the first who attempted with success to place nature upon canvas with pigments that faithfully matched her true, rich, and fresh colours. Her almost unceasing movement he rendered with a master-hand, so that his pictures are full of life, and one can almost hear the rush of the wind through the tree tops, or the lashing of the rain upon the leaves. He felt the majesty of the tempest and the thunder-cloud, and the beauty of the rainbow which signals the storm's departure. "Sunshine and Shower" would serve admirably for the title of many of his works; for these were the effects he painted most constantly, and with the greatest truth and power.