The romantic rebel who came to glorify English pomp
In the 18th century, landscape art was for losers. A landscape was a prop, a backdrop for the real action. Painters back then – as is the case now - followed the money, which meant historical or religious events. And portraits, of course. Landscape painting was no route to the Royal Academy of Art.
John Constable changed that. Landscapes are the central character in the works of this early romantic painter from England - at a time that the first smoking chimneys of the industrial revolution started appearing on the horizons. Many of his most prominent works from the Tate Gallery are now on show in Luxembourg’s Villa Vauban museum.
The exhibition is a travelogue of the painter’s journey around Southern England - an island he never left. Constable wasn’t the first painter to do landscapes. Of an older generation, Thomas Gainsborough did the same – but his landscapes mainly stem from the studio, and were not done en plein air. And it was Gainsborough's portraits that helped him achieve wealth and celebrity status and a seat on the Royal Academy of Arts, not his landscapes.
Constable was one of the first artists to do his oil paintings outdoors, along with contemporaries such as William Turner and William Delamotte. So far, painters had mostly done watercolours outdoors – much more practical because they dry far quicker than oil paint.
Constable’s painting of Malvern Hall in Warwickshire fits in the tradition of the country house portrait. The landed gentry – as well as the nouveau riche – commissioned these works to display wealth and status.
As an early work, it lacks the looseness of Constable’s later works such as The Mill Stream, which shows his characteristic fast brushstrokes – a technique that made him one of the forerunners of the impressionists.
The weather is an English person’s favourite topic of conversation, and it is no shock to discover that Constable was equally fascinated by it. Throughout the exhibition you come to appreciate that England, like Luxembourg, is often covered in clouds - lots of them. Constable was a geek for all things weather related and he succeeds in capturing meteorological phenomena with great accuracy, and an uncanny three-dimensional quality.
Constable was never fully appreciated in England, although it is a testament to the artist’s long-lasting fame that the term ‘Constable Country’ is still used to describe almost every traditional landscape picture or chocolate box depiction of the countryside in existence today. In later life, he felt the clock ticking. Spurred on by his friend, John Fisher, and the death of his wife, he began to produce canvases of approximately six foot in height. They are monstrous paintings, that stem from the studio, based on smaller plein air sketches. Constable hit the home run with them - but they lose some of the life of his earlier work.
While Turner painted landscapes from Luxembourg during a brief sojourn here, there is little that directly connects Constable to the Grand Duchy. But of course, the nostalgia that Constable evokes – as farms gave way to industry – is the same on the banks of the Alzette as across the Channel. The clouds roll by, the farmers work in the fields, and all's right with the world. It is a view that is as charming now as it was back then. Even if Constable broke with tradition in his landscape painting, it makes his works, essentially, conservative.
Constable’s painting The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (Whitehall Stairs, June 8th, 1817) is a variation on the same theme. It is a move away from his classic countryside landscapes. It is bold, big, with positively gaudy colours, like, gasp, red. Constable by now had become a member of the Academy, whose building, Somerset House, features in the background, along with the distant outline of St Paul’s Cathedral. In the foreground, the Prince Regent is about to board his barge. It is a blatant reference to the church and the Royals - two of the greatest landowners of the time. Constable had become a master at self-promotion in his market, capturing the pomp and ceremony of England in its prime.