Constable: The Making of a Master (Victoria and Albert Museum)

Study of cirrus clouds, John Constable, about 1821-22, oil on paper © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Study of cirrus clouds, John Constable, about 1821-22, oil on paper © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

John Constable is one of those artists who will stay forever loved among the English, but is unfortunately often relegated to obscurity abroad. When I visited the V&A for this major new exhibition of his painting, I was struck by not only how busy it was on a Tuesday morning, but it also appeared that the median age of attendees was about fifty. Comments about the painter’s appeal to the elderly aside, this exhibition demonstrates Constable’s genius through an unapologetic statement regarding his influences, both contemporaneous and historical, reaching beyond his oft-celebrated colleague Turner. Constable collected over 5,000 prints and numerous paintings during his life. His friend and biographer, C.R. Leslie recounted that, ‘Constable died as he lived, surrounded by art, for the walls of the little [bedroom] were covered with engravings’. If there is a singular importance to this exhibition, it is the ability to view Constable’s works alongside the art he immersed himself in.

The Three Trees, Rembrandt, 1643, etching. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Three Trees, Rembrandt, 1643, etching. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The gallery space itself is much larger than I would have expected and unlike many modern exhibitions, flows nicely from room to room. Although I have done a fair amount of personal study on Constable before, I still felt the displays had taught me a wealth of knowledge. Additionally, Constable’s painterly process is outlined beautifully by the curators. There is a clear line of thought that is enumerated through the progression of sketches made en plein air, to larger studio sketches and finally to finished works, many of which he displayed at the Royal Academy then at Somerset House, the Courtauld’s current home. It brings together these earlier stages for many of Constable’s most loved works, such as The Hay Wain, and the grandiose scale of this exhibition allows the viewer to get up close and see each one individually.

The Hay Wain, John Constable, 1821, oil on canvas. © The National Gallery

The Hay Wain, John Constable, 1821, oil on canvas. © The National Gallery

I do, however, take some issue with the curators’ use of the term ‘impressionistic’, which is used once to describe Constable’s style.  Although it demonstrates that the attitude the French Impressionists are often credited with inventing was actually begun almost a hundred years earlier, it does seem an often inappropriate comparison that belittles Constable’s own originality. However nit-picky that may seem, the overall composition, lay out and framing of this exhibition brings to light this great English painter’s thought process, and his insatiable work ethic.

Chelsey Randall-Wright is a MA History of Art student at the Courtauld working on Early Netherlandish Art. 

Constable: The Making of a Master is at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 20 September 2014 to 11 January 2015.

A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany (Courtauld Gallery)

Spring might still be over a month away, but the winter rain cannot darken the stunning natural views currently on display at The Courtauld Gallery in “A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany.” This exhibition, jointly organized with the Morgan Library and Museum, explores important developments in German and British landscape painting from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These years were a time when artists in both countries increasingly began to turn away from conventional classical landscapes (think Claude Lorrain) in favor of evocative scenes painted directly from nature.  Indeed, the exhibition title captures the idea of personal interaction and interpretation that became central to the Romantic landscape tradition.

Carl Philipp Fohr, The Ruins of Hohenbaden, (1814-15), The Morgan Library & Museum

The oil sketches, drawings, and watercolors in this exhibition are spread across three rooms on the top floor of the gallery.  Their subjects range from rural hills and lush forests to haunting churchyards and imposing ruins.  The first room focuses on early Romantic landscapes by artists such as Thomas Gainsborough, John Robert Cozens, and Jakob Philipp Hackert.  Hackert was one of the first advocates in Germany of painting landscapes out of doors, and his careful observations of botanic detail can be seen in the leafy foreground of his View of the Villa of Maecenas and the Falls of Tivoli (1783).  Particularly interesting is the second room of the exhibition, which is filled with paintings and drawings of clouds by Franz Kobell, Johann Georg von Dillis, and John Constable.  This in-depth look at the role weather and atmosphere play in influencing the mood of a landscape serves as an apt transition into the final portion of the exhibition.

Samuel Palmer Oak Tree and Beech, Lullingstone Park (1828) The Morgan Library & Museum

The third and largest room focuses on one of the most recognizable characteristics of Romanticism: the sublime.  The overwhelming power of nature is readily apparent in works such as Carl Philipp Fohr’s The Ruins of Hohenbaden (1814-15), which depicts the crumbling remains of a once-mighty structure slowly being engulfed by its sylvan surroundings.  “A Dialogue with Nature” also draws attention to specific motifs commonly found in British and German Romantic landscapes of this time.  Images of twisted and gnarled trees, for example, appear in works by both Samuel Palmer and Karl Friedrich Lessing.  Vivid highlights and writhing lines make Palmer’s watercolor and ink drawing Oak Tree and Beech, Lullingstone Park (c. 1828) a striking interpretation of this subject.  In addition to pointing out similarities, the layout of the exhibition also invites viewers to compare stylistic differences between British and German approaches to landscape painting.  For example, Caspar David Friedrich’s finely detailed Moonlit Landscape (c.1808) is hung side by side with another nocturnal scene, the more atmospheric On Lake Lucerne, Looking Towards Fluelen (1841?) by J.M.W. Turner.

The landscapes in this exhibition present a fascinating combination of frank observations imbued with poetry and emotion.  Their intimacy and immediacy is sure to leave an impression upon all those who visit The Courtauld’s “A Dialogue with Nature.”

Lindsay Wells is an MA student at the Courtauld.

A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany is at the Courtauld Gallery until 27 April 2014.