The Thinking 

The Skies and Fields of Constable

September 3, 2012


Chain Pier, Brighton; John Constable, 1827


Among the pleasures I experienced in reading the recent post “Gainsborough’s Children” and seeing the portraits was the quote from John Constable on Gainsborough’s works: “On looking at them, we find tears in our eyes and know not what brings them.” Although this moving comment was new to me, I could tell from what I had read in his letters, lectures, and documented conversations that it was just like Constable to speak this way, and I would like to share my thoughts that were prompted by his words.

Unlike Gainsborough, a painter of exquisitely delicate landscapes who made his mark as one of the great portraitists of his time, Constable was almost exclusively a landscape painter whose works leave a lasting impression of dramatically cloud-filled skies and the sheer substance of trees, water, fields, and hills. I note these contrasts to underscore just how deeply he could see into the work of an artist so different from himself, which speaks not only to his character and temperament but also to one of his prime standards for aesthetic judgment. In a lecture to the Royal Academy, or so I remember the source, he remarks on the shallowness of those who judge art only in view of the Italian Renaissance masters and have little regard for the Dutch painters of that time, concluding that “a half taste is no taste at all.”

Constable is always worth reading, and much that he says sticks in the mind for its sensitivity, attention to detail, and freshness of perception, as in his observation that just as no two days are the same, “no two leaves on a tree are alike,” and that “painting is another word for feeling.” Unlike Turner, his great contemporary in landscape painting, who reveled in scenes of nature at its most awesome and sublime, Constable rarely painted far from the landscape of his childhood along the River Stour in Dedham Vale, East Anglia.

In a passage from Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, C. R. Leslie writes, “His nature was peculiarly social and could not feel satisfied with scenery, however grand in itself, that did not abound in human associations. He required villages, churches, farmhouses and cottages.” English literature formed a part of these associations. In a letter to his close friend Bishop John Fisher, he expresses his love of rural England with reference to the lines on “Poor pelting villages” that are spoken by Edgar disguised as Poor Tom in Shakespeare’s King Lear: “How much I wish I had been with you on your fishing excursion in the New Forest! What river can it be? But the sound of water, escaping from mill-dams, etc., willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts, and brickwork, I love such things. Shakespeare could make everything poetical; he tells us of poor Tom’s haunts among ‘sheep cotes and mills.'”

Constable was instinctively drawn to what Orwell calls “the surface of the earth” (in “Why I Write”), and his heightened sense of life is evident in the distinction he always made between “pictures” and “Art,” in which the process of making nature come alive on canvas, as later for Cézanne, was a methodical and patient struggle to integrate his love of the old masters with the infinitely changing sensations he experienced while painting or drawing among the outdoor scenes he knew so well. Decades before Cézanne spoke of redoing Poussin from nature, Constable was translating Dutch seventeenth-century landscape painting, especially the work of its greatest figure, Jacob Ruisdael, into a new language of light and color.

Leslie writes that Constable’s powers of concentration were such that, when he was working on a painting one day, a field mouse found its way into his coat pocket and went to sleep.

In this as in other ways, Constable belongs to a continuum of artists. According to Vasari, “it seemed strange” to the Prior who saw Da Vinci at work on The Last Supper “to see Leonardo sometimes stand half a day at a time, lost in contemplation.” Delacroix was observed spending hours looking at the sea foam on the skin of sea nymphs in Rubens’ The Arrival of Marie de Medici at Marseilles, which he copied several times; and Londoners saw Turner one morning gazing at the Thames and standing in the same spot later that day.

The lesson in all such examples of disciplined concentration is summed up by the French religious philosopher Simone Weil in her essay “Reflections on School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” in which she writes that “the development of the faculty of attention” is the real subject of every academic field. Constable was thinking along the same lines when he said in a lecture at the Royal Academy, “We see nothing truly until we understand it.”

—— Comments  —–

Thomas F. Bertonneau writes:

I was delighted with Steve Kogan’s short essay on John Constable. Steve is generous in sharing his insights and The Thinking Housewife is generous in giving them a forum.

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