In my opinion, John Constable has always seemed relatively boring. His organic English landscapes have always seemed too pale in comparison to his arch-rival, J.M.W. Turner. The Hay Wain, for instance, is a remarkable picture — but what dazzle it had has been scraped off by the cruel palette knife of unenthusiastic art teachers, and by the often unquestioning assumption of its greatness. It must be the tragedy of Constable’s posterity: that most of us gallery-goers and art-lovers associate him with a single picture, The Hay Wain — a picture, reproduced so many times in the ‘lavatories’ of our grandparents and in musty classrooms where it masks the cracking wallpaper, that most of us are sick of it. And so, most of us are sick of Constable. Yet we hardly even know him. I was certainly sick of him until I visited the Royal Academy this morning, and snuck down the stairs, through a long corridor, up some more stairs, and then turned left past a restaurant, and came upon an exhibition about which I was curious, but not necessarily excited.
The Royal Academy’s latest exhibition, ‘Late Constable’, is the first to focus on Constable’s late style (specifically, from 1825 – 1837). Many of the pictures featured were never intended for public display, and it quickly becomes obvious that he painted these for himself. These manifest themselves in myriad ways. There are the watercolours (Stonehenge being the greatest example), the Cloud Studies, the little oils, and the full-sized ‘sketches’ for the paintings which he would exhibit. But that word ‘sketches’ seems a little self-effacing. For they show a Constable who is precociously modern. And, I would argue, considerably more modern than the late Turner’s often lauded vapid foray into abstraction.
The first room introduces us to The Leaping Horse: a work which Lucian Freud ludicrously dubbed ‘the best painting the world’. It certainly isn’t that. It’s the last of Constable’s ‘Stour six-footers’: a group of huge paintings, including The Hay Wain, which presents a realistic yet nostalgic view of life in and around the canal-like River Stour, which forms the most part of the Essex-Suffolk border. This then represents a Constable in transition: these are the paintings for which he is best known today, and so by making The Leaping Horse a beginning rather than an ending, the curator lobs the viewer into unprecedented waters.
The Leaping Horse itself is displayed alongside its sketch. Comparison of the two brings about fruitful lines of thought on Constable’s artistic process: especially since the actual paintings often represent a more refined version of the highly experimental sketches. Certain details in The Leaping Horse are almost Pollockian: look at the river, and how the greens, whites, and blues seem to have been dribbled on. In the sketch, we see a much more explicit use of such a technique. One figure, to the right of the boat, when seen up close, is nothing but a few clots of congealed red and white paint.
Similar observations can be made when looking at Hadleigh Castle and its sketch. The sketch is a considerably more potent image: the small yet dark palette makes the sea and sky almost indistinguishable. The sense of ruin conjured up by this darkness and by the decaying castle painfully evoke Constable’s state of mind in that period: his wife whom he loved dearly (so much, in fact, that Turner would attack Constable on this point: ‘I hate all married men’) had recently died. That nature should be so overwhelming creates a sense of impermanence: the castle and the insignificant shepherd are being subsumed by the natural world.
Rainstorm over the Sea is one of the more unusual pictures on show. It’s a tiny oil sketch that’s loudly anachronistic in the oeuvre of an early 19th-century painter. A few wide and hasty brushstrokes render the sky, with a horrible downward gravity; it’s as if the horizon is being crushed towards the edge of the frame. The sea itself is juxtaposed to this: it consists of thin and horizontal lines of a thick black impasto. Little drops of white paint over the black are white horses, furthering this sense of tumult. The Stonehenge Watercolour is also superb. It’s clearly a hasty rendition of the site, perhaps most evident in the limited palette. But this allows him to capture the mysterious atmosphere of the place. The sky is cloudy and there are two rainbows — yet neither of these details is painted. Both are suggested by spaces of empty canvas.
There is something unprecedented in the magnificence of this exhibition. It refocusses its audience on another Constable — one who isn’t simply the Constable of previous generations, one who, as Kenneth Clark said, ‘was teaching us all to realise that our own countryside could be taken exactly as it is’. This is less the parochial trumpeter of rural England than a revolutionary landscape artist, who translated his widower’s grief into a series of dark yet electric pictures.