Tuesday, February 18, 2014

John Constable: Oil Sketches from the Victoria and Albert Museum


The Princeton University Art Museum March 17 through June 10, 2012
Frist Center for the Visual Arts Nashville, TN June 22–September 30, 2012

This compelling, once-in-a-lifetime exhibition of 85 paintings, oil sketches, watercolors and drawings offers a rare insight into the revolutionary working processes of John Constable (1776–1837), England’s foremost landscape painter, who took his paint box out into the countryside, ultimately paving the way for the avant-garde French artists of the 1870s and changing the course of modern art. The Princeton University Art Museum was the first of only two North American venues for this exhibition, the most ambitious look at Constable’s work to be held in the United States in a generation.

John Constable: Oil Sketches from the Victoria and Albert Museum traced the evolution of Constable’s brilliant, fluid landscape painting style, rooted in the artist’s meticulous observation of the British countryside he knew intimately from childhood. To faithfully capture shifting effects of color and light, Constable became a master of the quick oil sketch, painting rapidly outdoors on sheets of paper or scraps of canvas pinned to the lid of his paint box. He then used these sketches as source material for fully realized exhibition landscapes, painted in his London studio. Well aware of the new theories on the natural sciences emerging during the English Enlightenment at the end of the 18th century, Constable declared, “Painting is a science, and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature.” To this end, he generally inscribed his oil sketches with the exact date, location and weather conditions in which they were made.

But to think of these studies as merely provisional works of art is to misunderstand both their complexity and their revolutionary character as improvised works, brimming with color, open brushwork, and a sense of spontaneity that allows them to be seen as “modern” even in the 21st century. Indeed, in 1821, 53 years before the first French Impressionist exhibition in 1874, Constable wrote “But I should paint my own places best—painting is but another word for feeling.”

The exhibition began in 1800 with Constable’s first paintings of the lush farmlands of his boyhood home—the now-canonical “Constable Country” of Suffolk and Essex— and progresses through the artist’s career, presenting works grouped according to the locations he would come to immortalize—the Stour River valley, Hampstead Heath, the Salisbury plains, and Brighton beach—all seen through the lens of his close observations from nature.

At the heart of the exhibition were two vibrant full-scale studies for two of Constable’s most celebrated exhibition paintings:

The Hay Wain (1821)

and The Leaping Horse (1825).

Like the finished paintings, these sketches were painted on the grand scale of history paintings and measure over six-feet wide. They were recently cleaned, which enables us to see their original colors and tonalities for the first time in living memory. They are displayed side by side with one of the artist’s finished paintings,

Hampstead Heath: Branch Hill Pond,

and a spectacular selection of Constable’s small oil sketches. There are exquisite watercolors and drawings, which span from painstaking early works to the seemingly effortless later sketches that defined the now-canonical English landscape: the “Constable Country” of Suffolk and Essex, where the artist spent his childhood. In addition, there are views of Brighton, London, and Salisbury.

The oil sketches for The Hay Wain and The Leaping Horse at the center of this exhibition were first loaned to the V&A by Henry Vaughn, an important collector of Constable's work, and remained there until their bequest in 1900 made them a permanent part of the museum’s collection. The V&A’s collection of oil sketches and other works by Constable grew significantly in the later part of the nineteenth century with further extensive gifts from the artist’s daughter Isabel Constable and daughter-in-law Anna Constable. These donations made the entirety of Constable’s achievement, from rapid pencil drawings to oil sketches and finished paintings, accessible to the public for the first time and significantly enriched our understanding of the artist.

John Constable: Oil Sketches from the Victoria and Albert Museum
was accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue published by V&A Publishing.

The exhibition was organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Finished paintings:

The Hay Wain (1821)

The Leaping Horse (1825).

Outstanding review, more images including:

John Constable. The Valley of the Stour with Dedham in the Distance, ca. 1805–9. Oil on paper, later lined onto canvas, 19 1/4 x 23 1/2 in. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 321-1888. © Victoria and Albert Museum / V&A images

John Constable. Salisbury Cathedral from the South-west, ca. 1820. Oil on canvas, later lined, 9 7/8 x 11 7/8 in. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 319-1888. © Victoria and Albert Museum / V&A images

John Constable. Brighton Beach, with Fishing Boat and Crew, 1824. Oil on paper, 24 1/2 x 30 in. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 782-1888. © Victoria and Albert Museum / V&A images