John Constable - Cornfield
( Originally Published 1909 )
In 1826 he painted the Cornfield, perhaps the most widely known of all his works, and certainly one of the most beautiful. In spite of its great attractiveness it remained on his hands until his death, when, as already stated, it was purchased by a number of his friends for 300 guineas and presented to the National Gallery. (See frontispiece.)
It was begun early in the spring, and in March his friend Mr. Phillips, of Brighton, sent him a long list of wild flowers which he might introduce into his foreground : "I think it is July in your green lane," he begins. On April 8th Constable writes to Fisher:—" I have despatched a large landscape to the Academy, upright, of the size of the Lock, but a subject of a very different nature—inland corn fields, a close lane forming the foreground. It is not neglected in any part; the trees are more than usually studied, the extremities well defined, as well as the stems; they are shaken by a pleasant and healthful breeze at noon;
' While now a fresher gale Sweeping with shadowy gusts the fields of corn,' etc.
" I am not, however, without my anxieties, though I have not neglected my work or been sparing of my pains." Later in the month he says, "The voice in my favour is universal, it is my ' best picture."'
This is one of his most vigorous and powerful masterpieces. The trees, as he says in his letter to Fisher, have been rendered with a loving fidelity to nature, and at the same time with great freedom and breadth in the handling. The noble group of elms in the hedgerow on the left is already slightly tinged with brown, while the shorter trees across the lane have still their summer dress of green. Between them, in the middle distance, part of a cornfield is seen, sloping down to the greener water-meadows of the valley, with glimpses of the river, and a church tower among the trees. Several small figures are moving along the pathway through the corn, which glows like gold under the sun's rays. The lane, which twists sharply down hill on the right, is in cool shadow, though the gleaming light filters through in places. The shepherd's boy, prone on his face by the wayside, leaves his dog to look after the flock, while he quenches his thirst at a small spring, and near him a donkey and her foal are browsing under the hedge. The sky is a fine piece of painting, full of movement, with its masses of white and gray clouds, and glimpses of bright blue. There is more warm, golden colour in this picture than in most of his larger works, and the yellow brown on the one side, and the tender green and blue on the other, combine to produce a very lovely effect. It is, indeed, a brilliant proof of Constable's wisdom in selecting his subjects from that part of rural England which he knew the most intimately and loved the best.
It was thought for many years that this picture was an actual scene near the border between Suffolk and Essex, with a distant view of Dedham church, but the artist's son, in a communication to " The Art Journal" in 1869, points out its precise locality. "I would rather ` The Cornfield' had been called `A Suffolk Lane" he writes. " It was painted in the lane leading from East Bergholt to the pathway to Dedham across the meadows, a quarter of a mile from East Bergholt church, and one mile from Dedham church as the crow flies. The little church in the distance never existed. It is one of the rare instances where my father availed himself of the painter's license to improve the composition. Dedham church has a much larger tower, and lies to the right hand outside the limits of this picture. The scene is greatly changed now. All the large trees on the left were cut down some years ago."
In one of his letters to his wife, written in 1823 during his visit to Sir George Beaumont at Coleorton Hall, Leicestershire, Constable says: "In the dark recesses of the gardens, and at the end of one of the walks, is a cenotaph erected to the memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds, and on it some beautiful lines by Wordsworth." In this he saw the possibilities of a fine picture, and made a small pencil drawing of the subject, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, No. 835, but he allowed ten years to elapse before attempting it on a large scale. He began to paint it in 1832, or early in 1833, but laid it aside again, being determined, as he wrote to Leslie, "not to harass my mind and health by scrambling over my canvas as I have too often done. Why should I? I have little to lose and nothing to gain. I ought to respect myself for my friends' sake, and my children's."
The picture of The Cenotaph, now in the National Gallery, No. 1272, was finished in 1836, and exhibited in the Royal Academy of that year—" a tolerably good picture," he himself called it. He found he could not finish both it and the Arundel Mill in time, and so preferred "to see Sir Joshua Reynolds' name and Sir George Beaumont's once more in the catalogue for the last time at the old house." " It might seem," says Leslie, "as if Constable had consulted the taste of his late friend in choosing the autumnal tints for the foliage of a scene taken from Sir George's grounds, but his doing so arose naturally from his having made his studies from it late in the autumn." (The pencil sketch was done on Nov-ember 28th.)
" In this fine picture, every way worthy of so interesting a subject, Constable introduced nothing living, except a deer in the foreground and a robin redbreast perched on one of the angles of the monument. In describing The Cenotaph in the catalogue, he quoted the lines on it written by Wordsworth at Sir George Beaumont's re-quest," the lines beginning " Ye lime trees ranged before this hallo'd urn."
This splendid picture, in which the restless, "glittering" manner of his last years is to be seen carried to its furthest lengths, has a solemnity well suited to the subject and the time of year which it represents. The stillness of an afternoon in November, unbroken by the sound of human footstep, while the tall, almost leafless trees stand like sentinels round this monument to a great painter erected by a lover of fine art, has been expressed with great power and nobility. In the painting of the trees he has shown how intimate was his knowledge of their anatomy. Busts of Michael Angelo and Raphael stand on pedestals on either side, while in the centre a fine stag with large antlers lifts up its head from the small pool at which it has been drinking. The colour scheme is one of rich browns and dark olive green, while a bright sunny sky of blue and white is seen between the interlacing branches. Low down upon the right there is a glimpse of sky line and open country on the horizon, forming a rich spot of colour. The scene is most impressive in its solitude, and displays a depth of feeling on the part of the artist which he did not often surpass.
The boldness of many of Constable's oil-sketches is very great, as well as the vividness of the personal expression in them; and they are of the utmost interest in the study of his art as a whole. Even in the most hasty of them one is struck by his attempt to get light and air. He had several modes of work. " One day he would paint on the clean canvas," says Mr. Orrock, "but always laid in a ground of burnt umber, tempered with richer or cooler colours. He would paint at another time on a deep, rich :red ground, for here and there the preparation is plainly visible. Even through the blues and grays of his skies the rich ground is to be distinctly traced. Sometimes, for texture, he would cover his canvases, chiefly small, with a cream-coloured impasto, which he would paint with a rough hog-hair brush, and leave it with its markings to dry hard." This latter is the method adopted in the Brighton Beach with Colliers, No. 59 in the Victoria and Albert Museum, dated July 19th, 1824, in which year Constable spent some months at Brighton with his family. It is one of the most brilliant of his impressions, and though only some seven inches by four in size, has been dashed in with great largeness of manner, and suggests a wide expanse of sea and sky. Every brush mark stands out boldly. The dark blue, almost opaque, of the water flecked with a little foam, the azure sky through which one or two small fleecy clouds come sailing before the fresh breeze, the sparkle of the white sails of the distant boats, the yellow sandy beach, and the blackness of the hull and masts of the colliers, together with the almost formless mass of houses on the left, combine to produce an effect of the greatest vividness, and a colour impression almost gem-like in its quality, so much has the artist expressed in the space of a hand-breadth. There are several other Brighton sketches at South Kensington which have very similar qualities, but none of them quite equal the glow and movement of this one, which shows Constable at his finest as a sketcher.
Constable's work as a portrait painter is now almost entirely forgotten. His parents were very anxious that he should devote himself to this more remunerative branch of art, but he had not the gift to combine, as Gainsborough did, both landscape and portraiture in equal perfection. " He painted the latter indeed, occasionally, all his life," says Leslie, " but with very unequal success; and his best works of this kind, though always agreeable in colour and breadth, were surpassed in more common qualities by men inferior to him in genius."
In 1812 he painted portraits of his maternal uncle, Mr. David Pike Watts, and of Dr. Fisher, Bishop of Salisbury, which appear to have given great satisfaction, so that his mother wrote to him: "Fortune seems now to place the ball at your foot, and I trust you will not kick it from you. You now so greatly excel in portraits that I hope you will pursue a path the most likely to bring you fame and wealth, by which you can alone expect to obtain the object of your fondest wishes"—which was his marriage with Miss Bicknell. At this time his price for a head was fifteen guineas. He also painted, among others, portraits of General and Mrs. Rebow and their daughter, Sir Thomas and Lady Lennard, the Rev. George Bridgman, brother of Lord Brad-ford, and the grandchildren of Mr. Lambert of Woodmanstone.
The portrait of Mr. James Lloyd was painted in December, 1806, in the artist's thirty-first year. It was originally a square which at some later date has been cut down to an oval, with the result that the hands have disappeared, as well part of the artist's signature. The sitter, who was a member of the well-known Birmingham family of bankers, is dressed in a white stock and a black high-waisted coat, which is buttoned over a buff vest. He has light curly hair and small side whiskers. There is great animation in his dark blue eyes and much expression in the mouth.
The handling is loose and free, and though it lacks all positive colour, the result is harmonious, and the portrait, as a whole, an attractive one. In its method it is largely based upon the portrait painters who immediately preceded him. Although it loses much through its want of colour it shows decided power in the rendering of character, and gives the impression that the artist had the gift of putting himself into sympathetic relationship with his sitters, and of thus producing a faithful likeness.