Constable: Impressions of land, sea and sky celebrates the art of one of the greatest British landscape painters. It focuses on John Constable as a maker of pictures, and works have been selected to emphasise his art-making processes. We have especially placed emphasis on Constable’s remarkable oil sketches of land, sea and sky, which contributed so much to the freshness of his work. Among these are fifteen of his brilliant cloud studies painted at Hampstead and seven of his evocative seascapes. We show the large painting of the Stour Valley, A boat passing a lock 1826, which Constable selected to give to the Royal Academy as his Diploma picture when he was elected Royal Academician in 1829. Alongside it is the other large version of the painting, from the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, together with a select group of related works. To demonstrate another way in which Constable created his pictures, and to indicate his training, we also show some of the direct copies he made of paintings by the seventeenth-century landscape artists Claude Lorrain and Jacob van Ruisdael and others, and some of the works that he painted under the general inspiration of the Continental masters who preceded him. One such painting is his magnificent The Vale of Dedham 1827–28 from the National Gallery of Scotland, a work that Constable considered to be one of his finest. We have further included a group of mezzotint engravings, works in which David Lucas translated Constable’s paintings into printed editions in close collaboration with the artist.
During recent years, several exhibitions in Australia have focused on the work of the French Impressionist landscape painters. However, the origins of our Australian landscape tradition belong more to British art, chiefly to the great achievements of two supreme masters, Constable and JMW Turner. Their generation of British landscape painters included John Sell Cotman, John Crome, Thomas Girtin, Samuel Palmer, Peter de Wint – and our own Australian colonist John Glover, whose art was shown in 2003–04 in Hobart, Adelaide, Canberra and Melbourne. It is ten years since the National Gallery of Australia presented the magnificent exhibition Turner, curated by Michael Lloyd, and there has not been a Constable exhibition in Australia or New Zealand for over thirty years. It is more than time to show this great British landscape painter in Australia again.
Constable is one of the most esteemed of all British artists. He painted his landscapes with an intensity of affection, particularly the countryside around his own home in Suffolk. His aim was to paint more naturally than his predecessors, and to do so he realised that it was necessary to develop a new way of seeing nature. This exhibition spans every variety of oil painting in which Constable worked, and shows almost every place to which he became attached. He produced images of a peaceful, prosperous land, inhabited by seemingly contented labourers. But he also showed the darker side of the landscape – a country of shadows and storms, of wind and rain.
The most spontaneous of his works are the oil sketches painted in the field, often done on paper small enough to fit into the lid of his paintbox, made as records of transitory appearances and often for the sheer pleasure of seeing and recollecting. Most of these oil sketches were inherited by his children and – together with a number of his remarkable pencil drawings and his delightful smaller-scale exhibition pictures – were given in 1888 by Constable’s last surviving child, Isabel, to the British Museum, the National Gallery (now transferred to the Tate), the Royal Academy of Arts, and the South Kensington Museum (Victoria and Albert Museum). We are deeply grateful to these institutions, which have kindly assisted us with substantial loans from their Isabel Constable gifts. They include three works from the British Museum, one from the Tate, eight from the Royal Academy, and seventeen from the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is particularly interesting that the group of sketches presented to the Royal Academy at that time – including the spectacular Rainstorm over the sea c.1824–28 – were all given in the gold frames in which they are now displayed, indicating that by 1888 these works were recognised as works of art in their own right. In this exhibition we emphasise the recognition of Constable’s oil sketches as works of outstanding artistic excellence.
There are few countries in which landscape painting has been so important to the national culture as Australia. Australia was settled at a time when landscape was the most dynamic and important form of art-making in Britain, and when it contributed most to the prestige of British art. At the beginning of the nineteenth century a distinctive English realism emerged, fresh and more advanced than elsewhere in Europe or America. British landscape painters rejected eighteenth-century classical rationalism and believed instead that landscape art should be more an expression of personal involvement with nature. Outside Britain their approach to landscape art was admired, particularly by progressive French artists.
Britain in the nineteenth century grew to become the world’s richest and most powerful country, with the largest empire, still expanding, that the world had ever known. Depictions of land and sea, both at home and across the British Empire, therefore, became crucial subjects for paintings. In this wider context, the portrayal of landscape has been part of the process in which British settlers at first claimed territory and then came to terms with the characteristics of the unfamiliar continent. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, landscape art continued to define the developing Australian nation.
Constable was master of truth, originality, and art without artifice. His work was much admired by French artists; Eugène Delacroix never forgot Constable telling him that the green of a meadow was composed of a variety of different greens. It has also been greatly admired by a range of Australian artists, from Tom Roberts through Hans Heysen to Howard Taylor. It is for this reason that in Australia, alongside Constable: Impressions of land, sea and sky, we are presenting a second exhibition, called Australia and Constable, which includes works by some of these Australian artists.
Conrad Martens, for instance, was a colonial artist influenced by Constable. In 1848 in Sydney, Martens read CR Leslie’s Memoirs of the Life of John Constable and copied into his commonplace book a passage in which Leslie described Constable’s cloud studies, including the comment that Constable dated his cloud studies ‘with the time of day, the direction of the wind, and other memoranda’. Later, when Tom Roberts was in London in the early 1880s – although it cannot be proved – it is hard to believe that he would not have visited the South Kensington Museum to view Constable’s works, including the nine cloud studies then on loan to the Museum. Given the freshness of those works, Roberts would surely have been impressed. Constable’s oil sketches are like Roberts’s now famous ‘9 x 5 impressions’, some of which he executed in London before returning to Australia in 1885. Constable was a dominant influence on Hans Heysen’s art, and Heysen not only demonstrated this in his own art but also in his collecting. Heysen amassed many engraver’s proofs of the Constable–Lucas mezzotints; he particularly admired the ‘light and shade’ of the mezzotints and observed that there was something in Constable’s work that appealed to him more than any other landscape painter. Howard Taylor was an incessant observer of nature, and over a number of years he admired Constable’s honest depiction of landscape. Most recently, Lesley Duxbury has looked to Constable for inspiration in a series of paintings and prints. She even visited Hampstead Heath to compare the scene 180 years after Constable and created Then and Now as a result of her experience.
Given the importance of Constable in Australia it is not surprising that we have a number of his significant works in Australian collections. The National Gallery of Victoria holds the major Study of ‘A boat passing a lock’ c.1826, as well as the delightful cabinet picture ‘The Quarters’ behind Alresford Hall 1816, a splendid cloud study and an oil painted after Constable’s visit to the Lake District in 1806, together with a large group of Constable–Lucas mezzotints from the collection of the Australian artist, Hans Heysen. And in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales there is Constable’s remarkable copy of a painting by Claude Lorrain, Landscape with goatherd and goats, after Claude 1823. We are most grateful to these institutions for lending these works to the exhibition.
It is with great pleasure that we present this important exhibition of the work of John Constable to the Australian and New Zealand public, and we are delighted to have developed the exhibition together with the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, which has been a most supportive partner. I hope that Constable: Impressions of land, sea and sky increases knowledge and understanding of, and enthusiasm for, the work of this major artist.
Ron Radford AM
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
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