I went to see the Constable exhibition at the V&A. I was painting in a very wet Knightsbridge and took refuge from the rain for an hour or so. I nowadays try to distance myself from all I know and have heard of an artist when I look at their pictures. What would the reaction be, I try to think, if an unknown posted this on an online painting forum… how many “likes” would it garner. It is not easy to look afresh, this is after all Constable, one of the greats of British landscape. The exhibition is well worth seeing as it includes paintings by artists who influenced him, both from the past and his contemporaries. So we had Thomas Girtin who he admired hugely and Ruisdael who he copied with great attention to detail. The exhibition also included the sketches and so forth where they when available, which I always like because they show how an artist sets about his business.
Firstly there was much I very much liked. The small plain air sketches and pencil studies. One or two of which have a lovely immediacy and delicate touch. It was here that the heretical thought occurred… if I found an unknown one of these and posted it under an assumed name on UKPleinair (a Facebook group with many fine painters as members) would it stand out? After racking my brains I had to conclude most would not. Indeed many were well below the standard that some artists currently post. The very best would I expect garner praise and positive feedback of course but not I have to conclude adulation. A few examples would be appropriate I suppose.
Here is a middling quality painting. You have to say though perfectly pleasant it is ordinary. Other painters of the time such as Turner and Girtin were doing far better work on the average in my opinion.
Here is another from later in life. Some nice enough bits but the trees to the left are clumsy as is the composition. The distant blue is a good touch but once again nothing remarkable.
Here is another, very briskly painted but heavy handed with some ugly brushwork. If it was not by Constable you would possibly throw it out! Because it is by Constable we earnestly peruse it, but to my eye it is just a poor painting.
This is a sketch for a bigger picture. I find, as Turner and the other Academicians did, that the crude muddy brushwork and the shotgun white highlights just don’t work. The red browns also overwhelm the painting and sit unpleasantly with the blue.
Now to dig myself a deeper hole still I will consider one of his iconic later paintings. Here is the sketch. There is very little good here. The drawing is poor with Salisbury cathedral toppling to the left. As for the stand of trees on the left, what was he thinking? The sky usually one of his stronger points also is marred by ugly fussy and ill considered white highlights.
Here is the final result. It looks better here than in the flesh. The whole picture is smothered in distracting white speckles. He used to call this his “snow” and knew that other painters disliked it. The drawing is a little improved but the river on the right climbs impossibly up the picture plane and there appears to be a miniature village built into the undergrowth on the far bank. Once again the trees are terrible especially the overworked branches at then top. Is it just me but those horses look more like Shetland ponies rather than cart horses!
Poor Constable I hate to say it but I think he has been built up greater than he really was. It is not his fault of course he has been taken by art historians to represent the precursor of impressionism. He is in fact, I feel, a very hit or miss painter who struck a few very high points here and there but struggled in later life to find his way. I liked his Water-meadow near Salisbury far more than his Haywain and some of his oil sketches more than both. He was of course influenced as all artists of the period were by Claude Lorraine and there was a fine example there. His real contribution was pioneering the working out of doors from life, though the curators of the show didn’t appear to notice that several of the so called plein air sketches had glazing over impasto white which makes it unlikely that they were actually done on site. I will end with my favourite thing from the show. A small oil sketch on a bit of millboard.
This is altogether delicious with a light touch and subtle colouring.