Constable: a stubborn lover of green hues

In his "Memoirs of John Constable," C.R. Leslie recounts several telling anecdotes about the English landscape painter's "discourse" - sometimes involving amiable disagreement - with connoisseur Sir George Beaumont.

As a collector, Beaumont had introduced Constable to old master paintings by Claude, and modern master paintings by Thomas Girtin. The influence of both artists on Constable was considerable (as also was Rubens's), but Constable's intense, direct passion for the landscape around his Suffolk boyhood home was a much stronger element in his vision.

Two canvases painted in 1815 of his father's garden - one of the vegetable patch and one of the flowers (shown here) - seem almost certainly painted from an upper room or the roof of the house. Their accuracy and realism are unprecedented, and their ambition is clearly to show how the gardens are set in a much wider agricultural landscape. Constable's eye, throughout his career, typically leapt in his paintings from the intimate to the panoramic.

What puzzled the far more conventional Beaumont seems to have been the uncompromising freshness and natural observation of Constable's vision. Constable's use of color - in particular his vivid and various greens, capturing in paint the lush greenness of the English countryside in summer - would hardly have been to Beaumont's taste. His ideal was the mellow brown of the varnish added to many old masters. One time, Leslie recalls, "Sir George recommended the colour of an old Cremona fiddle for the prevailing tone of everything" in a painting. "This Constable answered by laying an old fiddle on the green lawn before the house."

Sir George also once asked the young artist whether he found it difficult "to determine where you place your brown tree" in a painting. Constable's reply, wrote Leslie, was: "Not in the least, for I never put such a thing into a picture."

This painting will be part of 'Art of the Garden' (June 3 to Aug. 30) at London's Tate Britain, which describes the major exhibition as the first 'to examine the relationship of the garden and British art.'

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