It has been said a meteorologist could look at a painting by John Constable and tell us precisely what type of clouds are present. The remark is surely meant to compliment the great English landscape painter’s extraordinary attention to detail, especially as regards fleeting phenomena. Though Constable sketched the land and sky en plein air whenever possible, he almost always turned out finished paintings in the studio, making his powers of recollection perhaps even more remarkable than those of his first-hand observations.
Still, exactitude is hardly the whole story of a Constable landscape, as the current exhibition Constable’s Great Landscapes: The Six Foot Paintings, now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington through January, makes clear. Indeed, the real revelation here is his rigorously executed, full-scale preparatory oil “sketches” for these great works whose temporary reunification in Washington marks the first time eight of the twelve large paintings he ultimately produced can be viewed side-by-side with the sketches leading up to them.
Constable did not merely transcribe what he observed; he worked, reworked and then reworked again all of the elements - earth, sky, water, animals, people, buildings, farm implements and equipment - that described early 19th Century rural life in his native Suffolk. Constable’s focus, his obsession really, was the familiar landscape of his youth including the mill owned by his prosperous father, but his ultimate objective with these particular paintings was the decidedly urbane world of the Royal Academy, to whose membership he aspired.
If the Academy routinely disdained paintings of rural life in favor of those that took history as their subject, Constable set out to literally “show them” and thereby prove his worthiness by appropriating the grand scale of the pre-approved subject matter. The six foot paintings, then, would be Constable’s notice to the Academy that his passion for all things rural and parochial could literally occupy a larger, universal stage. Little did the committee know the lengths to which Constable would go to achieve their approbation.
The first of the six foot paintings Constable submitted for the Academy’s annual show was the “White Horse” (1819). The subject – a flatboat or barge bearing a draft horse on the River Stour - was familiar enough, but the scale was a real shocker to 19th Century London audiences. For 21st century audiences, however, the greater eye-opener was how Constable arrived at the final version. He would sketch the initial scene quickly, noting the passing clouds, the drifting currents and slow movement of the barge and its cargo, and then retreat to his studio in London where he would produce a full-scale six foot oil sketch, never intended for public consumption but for private investigation. One cannot overestimate the extraordinary commitment such effort required.
The show asks and attempts to answer what compelled Constable to make these full-sized sketches he never intended to exhibit. The key may lie in his need for a transitional stage from the first-hand sketches by the river bank to the finished canvas submitted to the Academy. These six foot oil sketches were his working canvases, the laboratory on which he could move or remove whole clumps of trees, figures in haywains or patches of sky and clouds and literally see rather than imagine how they worked on such a large scale. In them, the paint was applied quickly, sometimes with a palette knife, the impasto and expressive strokes thickened and more energetic than in the initial sketches and, for that matter, in the finished canvases. This need to know, fundamental to the artist’s investigation, could only be realized by working at the same scale and Constable, to his credit, knew this.
Even then, we are left wondering why Constable didn’t simply paint over these full-sized sketches as artists had always done before him in making their modifications, drastic or otherwise, evidence of which abounds through the X-rays of countless works over the years. One conclusion the viewer might reach when studying these works side-by-side is that for Constable further refinement of the full-sized sketches required a new work, not a reworking; and, indeed, the final versions are substantially different not only in the character of their detail, overall atmosphere and quality of light but in their narrative and emotional implications as well.
Perhaps the enduring irony of the sketches is that though they have a much coarser, hurried look than the final pictures, they stand on their own to such a degree that following Constable’s death, the last full-sized oil sketch he produced, “Stoke-by-Nayland” (1837), was for many years regarded as the finished piece he did not live to paint.