It’s rare that a museum transforms a major painter’s reputation with a single show, but the National Gallery of Art has done just that with “Constable’s Great Landscapes: The Six-Foot Paintings.”
Art aficionados know the English Romantic painter John Constable (1776-1837) for his academic, bucolic landscapes, but the exhibit shows him in a much different light.
By displaying his roughly brushed sketches for the first time alongside their corresponding paintings, this exhibit shows him as one of England’s most revolutionary artists and should erase his image as an often boring, stodgy painter.
The story goes like this: Struggling to gain recognition with London’s Royal Academy in the early 1800s, Constable, then a little-known painter, turned to creating monumental 6-foot-wide landscapes — the “six-footers,” as they were called.
To bridge the transition of bringing outdoor views into the studio, Constable made preparatory full-scale indoor oil sketches from his studies from nature.
He knew he had to create these preparatory sketches for the new demands of the “six-footers” — and with them he took this giant leap forward. In fact, some of these sketches are so loosely and freely painted that they are described as “pre-Jackson Pollock” in the exhibit catalog.
Like many Englishmen of his time, Constable first worked indoors, where he produced darkish, even “bleak” landscape paintings — as the show’s catalog says he himself called them.
However, he was smart enough to choose a different artistic direction while visiting his father’s lush, light-filled Suffolk farm.
It was there that he began painting outdoors, and his art took off.
One of these works is the exhibit’s early “Wivenhoe Park, Essex” (1816) in which he introduced his signature scudding clouds, reflective ponds and horizontal formats.
Yet, Constable didn’t stay with this smallish, bucolic approach for long. He faced the realities of the marketplace and knew he had to paint larger — as “The White Horse” (1819), his first large, successful painting, proved.
It’s fascinating to see the artist’s transitions from sketches to paintings in the show, and they’re clearest in “The Hay Wain” (1821), his most successful work. Nature seems to writhe in the stippled riverbank, windswept trees and lowering clouds of the sketch, done a year before. It could be the apocalypse, although Constable never intended it as such.
Another work that appears to heave is the full-size sketch and finished oil-on-canvas painting of “The Leaping Horse” (1825).Again, the preparatory painting is expressionistically darker. By contrast, light breaks through the whitish clouds to clarify details, such as the boat, bridge, horse and rider, in the finished painting.
The full-size sketch for “Hadleigh Castle” (1828-1829) is even more apocalyptic. In 1828, Constable’s wife, Maria, died of tuberculosis. While mourning her death, Constable purposely chose the dark, lonely site located near the mouth of the Thames River. Only the white highlights give it life.
Gathering these paintings and sketches from collections here and abroad required astounding energy and skill on the part of the National Gallery. The museum may not have set out to make Constable a revolutionary painter, but this is what it did.
It’s to be congratulated for conceiving and carrying through this important show.
WHAT: “Constable’s Great Landscapes: The Six-Foot Paintings”
WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest
WHEN: 10 a.m. through 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. through 6 p.m. Sundays, through Dec. 31