OWING to various causes few painters of the English school have been so misappreciated as Constable. Until a few years ago (when South Kensington Museum acquired the collection of
Constable drawings, sketches, and studies) the productions of his middle and late periods alone had been seen by the public.
The early Constable paintings, worked with the utmost care even to the verge of hardness, were hardly known and are now rarely seen. Hence, although Constable was admitted to be one of our foremost landscape painters, he was not accepted as a draughtsman, and his robust technique was considered almost coarse. These opinions were still more accentuated by the criticism of Ruskin, to whom the art of Constable was to a large extent unsympathetic. The broad and massive treatment which Constable employed was utterly opposed to the methods and processes advocated by Ruskin in his writings concerning the technical education of the painter. Ruskin's keen and subtle appreciation of Turner seems to have prevented him from entering into the spirit of Constable
Constable's aims are tersely put in the biography by Leslie. He painted light, dews, breezes, bloom, and freshness. In
Constable oil paintings and studies we see how earnestly he worked to attain these qualities, the very life and soul of landscape art. In his pictures we note how paramount in importance he deemed it to retain and realise them. There is room enough for a natural painter" he wrote in 1802. "The great vice of the present day is bravura, an attempt to do something beyond the truth. Fashion always had, and will have, its day ; but truth in all things will last, and can only have just claims on posterity." His point of view never altered. Constable, like all men with original ideas, was in advance of his time. In his day Landscape Art was considered by most people to be inferior to figure painting. This is well illustrated by the story told of Sir Thomas Lawrence, who was President of the Royal Academy at the time of Constable's election. It was, and still is, the custom for those newly elected into the fold of the Academy to call upon the members and thank them individually for the honour conferred. When Constable called upon Sir Thomas he was met by the chillingremark that "he might consider himself fortunate, as there were historical painters waiting for election."
Landscape art was ignored. Out of all the distinguished landscape painters of this country only three of the first rank have been elected members of the Royal Academy, viz., Wilson, Turner, and Constable. After Constable not one of the landscape painters now recognised as masters has been received into that body. If we take the period in which Lee, Witherington, and Creswick were members, we find amongst the " outsiders " Bonington, Miiller, Cotman, De Wint, David Cox, George Barret, jun., and John Linnell. These men are admittedly masters of their art, not only in water colour painting, but also in oils. This neglect can never be repaired, although it is somewhat condoned by the honourable positions given to the works of these painters in the loan exhibitions held at Burlington House every winter.
The landscape painter was a liberal man in his artistic tastes, and ever ready to acknowledge influences valuable to him in the practice of
Constable paintings. In his letters he makes constant references to his predecessors to whom he was indebted, and writes of them with admiration and gratitude. He speaks often of his studies from Claude, Ruysdael, and others, and especially does he express his admiration for Richard Wilson, an artist who is even now far from being fully recognised. In a letter dated 1823, Constable thus writes : " I went to the gallery of Sir John Leicester to see the English artists. I recollect nothing so much as a large solemn, bright, warm, fresh landscape by Wilson, which still swims in my brain like a delicious dream. Poor Wilson. Think of his fate, think of his magnificence. But the mind loses its dignity less in adversity than in prosperity. He is now walking arm in arm with Milton and Linnaeus. He was one of those appointed to show the world the hidden stores and beauties of nature." What a tribute to Wilson's art ! One can hardly imagine that the man to whom such words could apply, words coming from a master of his craft, lived a life of comparative penury. Wilson would probably have starved if the Royal Academy had not conferred upon him a small post in their institution. Constables own experience must have told him how hard was the life, and how bitter was the disappointment of Wilson.
We know that the landscape artist was not commercially successful as an artist.
Constable paintings were never popular, because his aims were never understood. His robust vigour was repellent to the average man. Especially were his productions disliked when he endeavoured to represent the glistening and broken lights on meadow and foliage by the process called "spotting." This method might have looked over emphasized when the picture was freshly painted. But now, when time has softened the surface, it takes a right place, and prevents the canvas looking " sleepy," an effect Constable had a great horror of.
This process was instinctively adopted by many of the best water colour painters, particularly by David Cox. No doubt the method came from the working of the material when making quick sketches from nature. In laying on rapid washes of water colour for sky, foreground, foliage, and distance, numerous spaces of the white ground are left. These spaces, many of which are hardly visible, give an extreme sparkle and brilliancy. They represent the glitter of reflected light from the sky across foliage and foreground. When the sketch was finished these lights were modified up to a certain point, but Constable was very guarded as to how far this was done. If carried too far the drawing became lifeless. By forgetting this fact the inferior artist, in trying to get finish, lost the greater qualities of spontaneity and truth of effect.
It was not only in the obvious that Constable excelled. He was a great and noble colourist. He was subtle in the arrangement of his composition, and, though painting much deep shade, tenacious of his effects of lights. Most important of all, he never failed to reproduce those exquisite flickering lights caused by the day sky which fall upon all objects in the open air.
John Constable has been often and truly called the Father of Modern Impressionism. His first desire was to reproduce God's light in his work, and to give a true and full impression of nature both in colour and chiaroscuro. The success with which he attained these objects amply justifies the claim he has to the distinction.
Constable oil painting, as a consequence, has had the widest and most lasting influence both at home and abroad. In mentioning his name in this connection I do not forget that all great landscape painters have been, by the very nature of their subject, impressionists. Turner was especially an impressionist, but, although Turner is accepted as the greatest master of landscape painting, and his work has not been without very great influence, Constable's robust and massive manner has effected the modern schools more universally.
In a letter already quoted he summed up the qualities at which he chiefly aimed in
Constable paintings — " light, dews, breezes, bloom, and freshness ; not one of which has yet been perfected on the canvas of any painter in the world." In another letter he refers to his desire to see the sun shine, the fields bloom, the trees blossom, and to hear the foliage rustle. In a letter written to Archdeacon Fisher he remarks : "'Oh dear, oh dear, I shall never let my longing eyes see that famous country (Italy).' These are the words of old Richardson, and like him I am doomed never to see the living scenes that inspired the landscape of Wilson and Claude. No, but I was born to paint a happier land, my own dear old England ; and when I cease to love her, may I, as Wordworth says,
' Never more hear Her green leaves rustle, nor her torrents roar ! ' "
John Constable never ceased to love his homeland. And his intense affection and sympathy for the English country side enabled him to paint it in a glorious ecstasy, the results of w T hich are not likely to be ever surpassed.