Constable at the National Gallery of Australia
Bulletin, 7 March 2006, pp. 64-65

“Constable country” promises a trot through the Suffolk scenery into which John Constable was born in 1776 before he painted nearby counties till his death in 1837. The exhibition of 108 oils, watercolours, drawings and prints - exclusively at the National Gallery in Canberra from 3 March - will appeal to those who turn to art for reassurance.

Despite what Constable called a “broken ruggedness” in his style, he never betrayed the wildness that overtook his contemporary, J. M. W. Turner. If there is any Englishness in English art, surely it resides in Constable, who found his themes “under every hedge”. His canvases were the kind of paintings that R. G. Menzies had in his mind’s eye in 1937 when he accused Modernists of talking “a different language” from that of “great art”.

All of which goes to show how deceptive are reputations, and appearances. In his day, Constable was as innovative as the Impressionists became. His subject matter, which now looks tranquil, was at the intersection of political, economic and religious upheavals. We shall need more than a list of dates to grasp his place in the narrative of English life.

Moral purpose saturated Constable’s landscapes, which were propaganda for Tory landholders in their struggle against the Liberal free traders to remove the duties on grain imports. Hence, his cornfields are not innocent pastorals but assert the rights of the squires, including his brother. He sided with the landowners against the riotous labourers and with both against urban capitalists, a dimension established by Michael Rosenthal’s recent volume on the artist for Thames and Hudson.

Similarly, his treatment of Cathedrals affirmed his attachment to Church and Crown, in opposition to the emancipation of Papists.

Holding art superior to nature, but without condescension, his landscapes gloried in cultivation and construction. Although he approached that domain through the eyes of Italian and Dutch Masters, he advanced beyond their achievements.

Evolution of the earth had been accepted among geologists before Constable investigated the cycles of “land, sea and sky” in the exhibition’s theme. In tune with the rise of meteorology, he saw himself as a natural philosopher. His “skying” tracked the transitory nature of clouds and the light, keeping his most finished canvases as impressions.

If other artists used the still life as a dissection table for technique, Constable developed landscape painting into a laboratory for delving into the tonalism within colours. John Gage’s catalogue essay explores how Constable, by overlapping shades of the same colour, deepened our appreciation of the relations between light and dark (chiaroscuro).

Although he found aristocratic and ecclesiastical patrons, he was not always admired as much at home as in France. Acerbic in his dealings with his fellows, he came to be regarded by most as a painter’s painter. The Canberra exhibition is supported by 47 Australian paintings which pay him homage, from his contemporaries through to the present.

Our pleasures from Constable are both visual and intellectual. His canvases tell us stories about the elements and of social conflict. Yet his storms and rainbows were never symbols for revolution and peace, but reminders that all is flux.