Reckless, extravagant, tending to the abstract, misunderstood, ahead of its time: old-age painting smashes rules, upsets, embarrasses and bewilders, then turns out to be iconic and a bridge to the next generation. This comforting story, axiomatic of modernism as progress, includes Turner’s dissolving forms, Monet’s water lilies, Matisse’s cut-outs and Picasso’s cartoonish disfigurations. Late Constable, the Royal Academy’s beautifully calibrated and very moving show, treads the path too, but unfamiliar twists inflect the “late work” model with something odder and more unsettling.
Old-age Constable was neither very old — he died at 60 — nor securely acclaimed — he became a Royal Academician only at 53, winning election by one vote. And the fascination of his final decade’s work was not a consistent radical project but its absence. The paintings spin in all directions — turbulent, nostalgic, formal, free, contrived, spontaneous.
“Rainstorm over the Sea”, urgent and glowering, reads almost as Expressionism — violent downward strokes overshadow a strip of water stabbed with horizontal incisions, made with the end of a brush. The black cloudburst reappears, more legibly, within the crisp naturalism of “A Boat Passing a Lock”. Then imagination takes over from fidelity to observation in a pair of contrasting monuments: the heap of broken stones, stark and luminous on a bare heath, in the watercolour “Stonehenge”, a timeless image of solitude and sorrow, and “Cenotaph to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds”, a statue framed by an elegant arch of autumnal trees with a wandering stag — pure romantic elegy.
If memory is a guiding force, the diversity of its uses is striking. The stately “Dedham Vale” revisits Constable’s native Suffolk in a composition indebted to Claude’s classical “Landscape with Hagar and the Angel”, a painting that Constable loved in his youth. But “The Cornfield” evokes how it feels to be young, easy, heedless: a boy in a bright-red jacket, lying flat on a poppy-sprinkled bank, drinks from the river while his sheepdog pauses and the herd slowly makes its way down a wooded lane. In the distance glows a sunlit field of tall wheat, a few rushing vertical brushstrokes. It is high noon; time stands still. Constable painted this at 50: “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. Painting, he said, “is but another word for feeling”.
Across three galleries whose psychological temperature rises and dips unpredictably, canvas by canvas, the excitement is of a painter still searching, not sure where he is going, underpinned by the master of controlled effects and coloured by a quiet defiance born of long struggle.
Constable’s reputation rests on his “six-footers”, the large landscapes of the River Stour built up from oil sketches and childhood remembrance during the dozen years of his fulfilling marriage in London. Infused with a Wordsworthian certainty about finding “art under every hedge”, he set out to create “natural peinture”. The exhibition opens with the last, greatest six-footer, “The Leaping Horse” (1825), as well as pen-and-ink studies showing the evolution of its complex design and the exquisite full-size sketch. To contemporary eyes the sketch is more scintillating in its light effects, subtle tonal gradations and balance of movement (jumping horse, contorted willow) and stillness (the waiting barge) than the finished painting. But the latter has its own drama: the horse and rider grand as an equestrian statue, the boat conjured in bold rough slabs, laid on with a palette knife.
“The Leaping Horse” comes as close as any landscape to squaring the circle between naturalistic description and pictorial structuring. It also heralds later, contradictory concerns — a looser manner, yet stronger monumentality. And storm clouds are gathering over the pastoral idyll. Maria Bicknell, the artist’s adored wife, was ill; she died in 1828. “Every gleam of sunshine is blighted for me,” Constable said. “Tempest on tempest rolls. Still the darkness is majestic.”
His painting survived; his fresh, immediate response to nature less so — the work became more mannered, the imagery more dependent on symbolism. The tumultuous, antiquarian “Hadleigh Castle” immediately followed Maria’s death: a vision of desolation, the ruined building silhouetted against a fierce sky. In the summer of 1829 Constable’s dear friend Archdeacon John Fisher told the grieving artist that “the church under a cloud is the best subject you can take”. In the theatrical set piece “Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows”, the Gothic spire pierces billowing skies, horses wade through a glassy stream, dragging a cart. Failing to sell, the picture occupied Constable intermittently until his death in 1837.
Confirming its status today as emblematic of British landscape and history, this is currently on loan from the Tate’s collection for the inaugural international exhibition at Shanghai’s Museum of Art Pudong. The Royal Academy shows the sketch: a dazzle of thick impasto set against translucent passages. Lacking the famous rainbow of the final version, which implies harmony and reconciliation, the fragmented brushwork and dark hues here suggest discord. The agitation may reflect, as well as personal distress, Constable’s lament about rural, religious and social change — the Reform Act was battling its way in 1831, when the painting was first exhibited, and passed in 1832.
A paradox of late Constable — conservative son of a wealthy mill-owner — is the experimental manner applied to very traditional subjects. One intuits that the artist found consolation in the materiality of paint, in what he called “attention to the surface of things”.
A group of Suffolk cottages, 1833-36, includes the dishevelled “Cottage at East Bergholt”, with a workhorse abandoned by the side of untidy fields as a gale rises — rural England in disarray — and also the rugged “Cottage Among Trees with a Sandbank”, a lone dwelling enclosed by dark foliage, an embodiment of the melancholy romantic sublime. A standout, lent by the Phillips Collection, is “A Farmhouse Near the Water’s Edge”, the livid surface so streaked with white slashes and fracturing marks that the scene is hardly decipherable; the thrill is in the vigour and texture. Yet the picture evokes just how we experience landscape — the rush of passing clouds, the flow of a river. Alongside is the smoothly finished “The Valley Farm”, anecdotal with its rowing boat, line of cows and smart half-timbered house. The first feels modern, the second is conventionally picturesque.
Unsurprisingly, it was “The Valley Farm” that sold fast, at a record price for Constable of £300; yet even in 1835 a dissenting critic complained that the artist “ought to be whipped for thus maiming a real genius for landscape”. A century later, when Duncan Phillips bought “Farmhouse”, the freer, looser Constable was the one he claimed as “the founder of modern landscape . . . He showed that the sun shines, that the wind blows, that water wets, that clouds are living . . . that air and light are everywhere.” We still respond to this — even in grief, Constable’s sense of nature as restorative endures, and fills this show with joy.
To February 13 2022, royalacademy.org.uk
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