Nature seen directly as art. Constable did not need to translate what he saw
New York — A GREAT artist's rough studies and sketches are often of equal, and occasionally of even greater, interest than his or her finished and more polished paintings. Not only is the original creative impulse more clearly revealed in such quickly dashed-off works, but the artist's ideas and attitudes haven't as yet been modified by social or artistic conventions, or neutralized by a desire to please. Of no one is this more true than John Constable (1776-1837), the great English landscape painter, who did as much as anyone else to revolutionize the way nature was perceived and given pictorial form in the early 19th century. Important and impressive as his major canvases may be, quite a number lost at least some of their sparkle and impact when translated from outdoor sketches to finished pictures in his studio.
Not surprisingly, considering their quality and Constable's fame, many of these preliminary exercises have survived. Most are in museums, a few are in private collections, and several of the best have been reproduced and discussed in books devoted to Constable's art. Some have remained in the artist's family, where they've been seen and studied by Constable scholars, and from which they've occasionally ventured to enliven exhibitions of his work.
A handful, including student work and mature nature studies, have remained unpublished and little known. A number of these, together with well over a hundred paintings, oil sketches, drawings, and prints, have been assembled by Salander-O'Reilly Galleries here in a truly outstanding demonstration of Constable's genius and passion for the English countryside.
There are early academic studies of nudes; sweeping panoramas and sharply focused outdoor scenes; dramatic cloud studies; portraits of family and friends; oils in which the paint has been as thickly laid on as by any of the early moderns, and others executed with all the delicacy of 18th-century landscapists; a charming oil sketch of a mouse; exquisitely toned pencil drawings; and roughly 50 mezzotints after some of his better-known paintings.
Constable's genius lay primarily in his ability to see nature as paint, shape, and color, and not as a succession of individual views that needed to be consciously translated into a variety of greens, browns, and blues and hundreds of details - and all within a consistent atmospheric context.
Anyone who has ever attempted to translate even a fairly simple view into paint will appreciate Constable's extraordinary ability to transform anything that lay before him, first into small, highly simplified and boldly rendered oil sketches, and then into larger, much more complex and richly detailed oil paintings.
Many of his tiny studies are quite miraculous. ``Stoke-by-Nayland from the South,'' for instance, appears to have been dashed off in less than three minutes, and yet it perfectly captures not only the basic forms of its wooded landscape with fields and buildings, but its color, atmosphere, and sunny vibrancy as well. ``Distant View of Salisbury Cathedral from the South-West,'' on the other hand, must have taken considerably longer, since this 6-by-10-inch sketch is as carefully and completely laid out - with every detail at least suggested - as any of his more finished compositions.
In the first three decades of the 19th century, only genius could have produced ``Dedham Lock,'' which has all the power of a modern Expressionist landscape but is only a little over 5 by 7 inches in size. Or ``Dedham Mill,'' which would look perfectly at home in any 20th-century modernist exhibition. And yet, neither of these stands out significantly in this remarkable show. I recommend it highly, especially to anyone fascinated by the process of translating such things as light, atmosphere, and a sense of place into paint.
At the Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, 22 East 80th Street, through June 25.