ART OVERSEAS - CONSTABLE AT THE NATIONAL GALLERY OF AUSTRALIA - REVIEW
at the National Gallery of Australia
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
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
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.
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