Watercolor That Drips Realism

THE British landscape painter John Constable (1776-1837) said once that ``in such an age as this, painting should be understood, not looked on with blind wonder.' To today's art doubters who so often cry ``But I don't understand it!'' when faced with yet another impossibly enigmatic instance of ``modern art,'' Constable's statement is likely to seem sympathetic. And indeed, on the face of it, Constable has become one of those painters (dismayingly admired by designers of birthday cards) whose vision of the world is generally so amiable, natural, real, and recognizable that most people have no difficulty at all in understanding him. On the face of it.

It is telling, however, that during his lifetime Constable had extraordinarily little success in ingratiating himself with the general public. This was not entirely from want of trying - though it's true he could, at times, be outspokenly obstinate about not changing his vision to suit popular taste.

Constable did engage the services of an engraver to make mezzotints of his paintings to bring them to a wider audience - though with only qualified results. He also exhibited at two public exhibitions where his work might have received popular approval - the Royal Academy and the British Institution, in London. He sold some pictures, but most of them returned unsold, after being exhibited, to his studio. He painted commissions, but increasingly disliked doing so. He did feel his art was under-appreciated. On the other hand he was sensitive about not wanting his ``children,'' as he sometimes called his paintings, to be ``exposed'' to ``the taunts of the Ignorant.''

Yet, at his peak, Constable also felt optimistically certain that he was discovering something quite new, and was extending the possibilities of landscape painting. He felt it was time that the painting of landscape reflected real experience, rather than merely some much-repeated classical ideal. He even suggested that painting should be a branch of what we today call ``physics,'' that it should be ``scientific.'' He also laid great store by the kind of individuality and originality that he felt an artist could derive directly from nature rather than the paintings of others.

Naturally when one of his paintings did receive due praise, he was greatly encouraged. This happened with ``The Lock.'' (This picture that has been in the news recently as the last of Constable's six great ``six-footer'' canal scenes - considered the supreme achievement of his art - to be still in private hands and put up for public auction, at Sotheby's. It was bought for L10.78 million on Nov. 14.)

When ``The Lock'' was first exhibited, at the Royal Academy in 1824, it did, to the artist's delight, receive some quite favorable attention. One critic wrote: ``Mr. Constable contributes a landscape composition which for depth, sparkling light, freshness and vigorous effect, exceeds any of his works. The scene represents a barge passing a lock on a navigable river.'' Another, otherwise rather critical commentator observed, ``he has the rare quality of looking at nature through his own eyes, and of daring to depict her as he finds her.''

The painter Henry Fuseli is reported to have ``greatly esteemed'' ``The Lock'': ``It was his constant visit ... every Sunday morning.'' It was Fuseli (whose own painting was obsessed with weird, nightmarish dramas which could hardly have been more different from Constable's sunny, open-air vision of his native Suffolk land) who had once rather humorously said he felt he needed an umbrella when standing in front of a Constable.

This was a remark that actually showed a clear understanding of Constable's aims. Constable felt that landscape painting - particularly in the British climate - ought somehow to have a dewy, airy character and be full of wind and weather. He was a great observer of clouds and their portent, of the passing shower, of the ever-altering way in which cloud shadows and intermittent patches of sunshine pass over the contours of the countryside.

This last phenomenon is happily captured in ``The Entrance to Fen Lane'' which he had painted, apparently outdoors on the spot in Suffolk, seven years before the ``The Lock.'' This earlier picture is also in the news at the moment - to be auctioned tomorrow at Phillip's, London. Unlike ``The Lock,'' it has until recently been hardly known. For many years, in an uncleaned state in a private house, it was dismissed as not being a Constable at all. Today, with a pencil study in the Victoria and Albert Museum to support it, and cleaning to reveal its mixture of broad and precise handling, Constable experts are sure it is his work.

``The Entrance to Fen Lane'' is unpretentious and natural, not unlike the work of the 17th-century Dutch landscape painters that Constable much admired. He loved Salomon van Ruysdael, for instance. He also learned much about the links between intimate foreground, middle distance, and the wide vista of the far horizon by looking long and hard at the breathtaking landscapes of the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens - elaborate landscapes through which the eye moves like a foot traveler or a bird in flight. And he absorbed and made his own the balanced compositions of the French painter Claude Lorraine.

But because Constable's work was so new, it was more misunderstood than understood. His status as one of the two most outstanding British landscapists in art history (the other being J.M.W. Turner) is something that has gradually developed since his death.

What many people misunderstood during his lifetime was the roughness of his paint - and yet it was precisely this that made it possible for him to introduce sparkle and wetness, scintillating sunlight, and rich, deep shadows into his landscapes. But here is how one critic responded to a painting of his in 1828: ``This is one of those numberless productions by the same artist under which it might be written - nature done in white lead, opal, or Prussian blue. The end is perfectly answered, why the means should be obtruded as an eyesore we do not understand. It is like keeping up the scaffolding after the house is built. It is evident that Mr. Constable's landscapes are like nature; it is still more evident that they are like paint.''

It was the same kind of complaint that was later to be leveled at the Impressionists, who in some ways were inheritors of what Constable started.

Constable's work varies greatly in ``finish'' from his quick small sketches, to full-size preparations for exhibition works, to the exhibition works themselves. It has sometimes been stated, as taste has altered over the years to prefer the boldness and excited immediacy of his sketches to the labored detail and endless consideration of his final pictures, that the sketches are his masterpieces and not the finished pieces. If so, it seems likely that Constable's intentions, if not his preferences, have come to be disregarded.

It is hard to believe that the long struggles Constable had in translating initial vision into final masterpiece were undergone entirely because of his desire for popular recognition, or solely to meet the demands of his period's conventions. He too must have wanted to make finished and final statements of his landscapes, but without losing that ``dearest freshness deep down things'' that to him, no less than the priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, was a matter of passionate and ecstatic response to nature.

Constable is really much more complex an artist than his appealing realism alone might suggest. Once in a single sentence he paid tribute to two sources of inspiration, Milton, poet, and Linnaeus, botanist. If he spoke of painting as a scientific naturalism, he evidently didn't mean by that a cool literalism. His words and his paintings also quite openly express a vigorously felt love - a religious love - of nature, something far more intense and achingly heartfelt than a mere delight in pretty scenery.

In an article about the British painter John Constable, published Dec. 10, the headline incorrectly read: `Watercolor That Drips Realism.' Nowhere in the article was watercolor mentioned, and the two paintings reproduced were correctly labeled as oils. We apologize for the editing error.

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