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Constable

The mainstream of English painting in the first half of the nineteenth century was landscape, Constable and Turner, the greatest of the landscapists, approached nature with excitement. At that time nature was beginning to be swallowed up by the ex­panding cities of the Industrial Revolution.

John Constable, the son of a miller on the River Stour in Suffolk, honoured all that was natural and traditional, including the age-old occupation of farmer, miller, and carpenter, close to the land whose fruits and forces they turned to human use. He loved the poetic landscapes of Gainsborough, he studied the con­structed compositions of the Baroque, he admired Ruisdael's skies. Rebelling against the brown tonality then fashionable in landscape painting - actually the result of discoloured varnish darkening the Old Masters - he supplemented his observations of nature with a study of the vivacity of Rubens's colour and brushwork.

As early as 1802, Constable started to record the fleeing as­pects of the sky in the rapid oil sketches made outdoors. "It will be difficult to name a class of landscape in which sky is not the key­note, the standard of scale, and the chief organ of sentiment," he wrote. Constable systematically studied cloud formation in 1821-22. These studies show his surrender to the forces of nature, a passionate self-identification with sunlight, wind, and moisture.

Constable never left England and made dutiful sketching tours through regions of acknowledged scenic beauty. His superb The Hay Wain, of 1821, sums up his ideals and his achievements. Composed as if accidentally - though on the basis of many pre­liminary outdoor studies - the picture, painted in the studio, shows Constable's beloved Stour with its trees, a mill, and distant fields. In his orchestra of natural colour the solo instrument and conductor at once is the sky. The clouds sweep by, full of light and colour, and their shadows and the sunlight spot the field with green and gold. As the stream ripples, it mirrors now the trees, now the sky. The trees are made up of many shades of green and patches of light reflect from their foliage. These white highlights were called "Constable's snow". The Hay Wain was triumphantly exhibited at the Salon of 1824, where Constable's broken colour and free brushwork set in motion a new current in French landscape art, which later culminated in the Impressionist movement. In 1829 Constable became member of the Royal Academy.

In later life, after the death of his wife, Constable entered a period of depression in which his passionate communion with nature reached a pitch of semi-mystical intensity. One of his late pic­tures is Stroke-by-Nayland, of 1836-37, a large canvas in which the distant church tower, the wagon, the plough, the horses, and the boy looking over the gate are instruments on which light plays. The symphonic breadth, of the picture, and its crushing chords of colour painted in a rapid technique, bring to the finished painting the immediacy of the colour sketch. Such pictures are equalled in earlier art only by certain landscape backgrounds in Titian or by the mythical reveries of the late Rembrandt.


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