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.

Artistic Exchanges: Corot, Costa, Leighton (National Gallery)

If you plan on visiting the National Gallery this summer, you won’t want to miss the sun-drenched Mediterranean landscapes currently on view in “Artistic Exchanges: Corot, Costa, Leighton.”  The paintings in this display reconstruct the interactions between three of Europe’s foremost artists of the nineteenth century: France’s Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875), Italy’s Giovanni Costa (1826-1903), and Britain’s Frederic Leighton (1830-1896).  “Artistic Exchanges” insightfully draws attention to the admiration these men had for each other’s work, as well as their shared appreciation of the natural world.

Corot - Avignon from the West (1836)

Camille Corot – Avignon from the West (1836)

Eager to establish a landscape tradition in his native country, the Roman-born Costa sought inspiration from foreign artists such as Corot, who was keenly interested in painting the poetic effects of light and atmosphere.  Corot’s Avignon from the West (1836), for example, unites land and sky with one another through a harmonious pattern of sunshine and shadows.  The interplay of light and form became a salient feature in Costa’s own compositions, such as Bocca d’Arno (c. 1895), a sweeping riverscape bathed in subdued blue-grey tones.  The panoramic views of Italian countryside favored by Costa made a subsequent impact upon Frederic Leighton, a fellow admirer of Corot.  Throughout his life, Leighton regularly traveled to Italy for painting excursions, on which trips he was occasionally accompanied by Costa after the two met in 1853.

Frederic Leighton - An Outcrop in the Campagna (perhaps 1866)

Frederic Leighton – An Outcrop in the Campagna (perhaps 1866)

The intimate exhibition space encourages viewers to draw comparisons between the landscapes by all three featured artists.  Leighton’s An Outcrop in the Roman Campagna (c. 1866), for example, employs the broad, lateral format favored in Costa’s paintings.  Meanwhile, the loose application of pigment in this landscape resembles Corot’s mode of handling in The Roman Campagna, with the Claudian Aqueduct (c. 1826).  The two artists’ treatment of light is also similar, so much so that a different painting by Leighton—The Villa Malta, Rome (1860s)—was originally attributed to Corot.  One of the most striking similarities of design appears between Costa’s A Morning at Botri, near Lerici (1878-81) and Corot’s The Leaning Tree Trunk (c. 1860-65), both of which the motif of sinuous branches backlit against a vaporous sky.

Giovanni Costa - A Morning at Botri, near Lerici (1878-81)

Giovanni Costa – A Morning at Botri, near Lerici (1878-81)

At the same time, the display also highlights the stylistic characteristics that made each artist’s approach to landscape painting unique, such as Costa’s delicate brushstrokes, Leighton’s solid forms, and Corot’s soft-focus delineation.  Corot’s large series The Four Times of Day, which hangs in the adjacent gallery, is a fitting compliment to “Artistic Exchanges,” particularly because it was Leighton who originally purchased this work from the artist in 1865.

Overall, these landscapes construct a compelling visual argument that emphasizes how these three artists influenced one another over the course of their careers. It also underlines the international nature of landscape painting during the nineteenth century.

Lindsay Wells is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Artistic Exchanges is in Room 42 of the National Gallery from 7 May – 3 September 2014 .

Turner and the Sea (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich)

View into the exhibition

View into the exhibition

An exhibition of nineteenth-century marine paintings would not normally be the first port of call for my eye, one more accustomed to the sophistication of modernist primitivism and roughness. Canvases of yellow, varnished vessels on glass-blue seas – passing ships in the day – can blend into their own sea of anonymous repetition. By the time one reaches the second section of this remarkable exhibition, though, such a lazily prejudiced approach is forcibly ejected from one’s mind.

In the large and high exhibition hall at the National Maritime Museum (NMM), the curators have created a transparent maze of rooms which directs the viewer chronologically through J.M.W. Turner’s (1775-1851) career. While it is remarkable enough that this is the first ever full-scale examination of Turner’s creative engagement with the sea, an opportunity to witness briskly his development of painting style is a latent but signal bonus.

From the early rooms – where the master is finding his own voice and language while giving a (provisional) nod to the tradition of the genre, to the last rooms where some of the works (unfinished or not) could almost slot effortlessly into an exhibition of abstract work – texture, composition, scale and atmosphere bombard the sensitive viewer. I was lucky enough to be let in before the public and, at times, it was as if I was stranded in a vortex of temperamental breakers, proud vessels and daunting skies threatening to overcome me from all sides.


Off the Nore Wind and Water (c. 1840-45)
© Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

The highlights in this exhibition can hardly be accidentally overlooked: the (second version of the royally commissioned) Battle of Trafalgar (1823-24) dominates an entire wall, and a mournful, ghostly The Fighting Temeraire (1839) needs no introduction. The hang at the NMM allows close contact, often at eye level, with these grand but oddly informal paintings. Examining Turner’s unpredictable impasto and moody brush-strokes and comparing them to van de Velde, Gainsborough and Constable (all on show) provides a helpful contextualizing benchmark. The collection of prints and watercolours, in their own separate section, makes visible the process of Turner’s draughtsmanship without the noise of oil. Frighteningly delicate mezzotints almost defy the genre and give further (unneeded but welcome) testament to Turner’s confidence and versatility.

The final two rooms uncover a man who, even in his sixties and seventies, almost quite literally did not stop drawing, painting, innovating and, above all, looking. The enthusiasm to develop his vision is exemplified by Off the Nore Wind and Water (c. 1840-45). In a circumvention characteristic of fragmented modernity, Turner disposes of the need to distinguish between finished and unfinished work.

Turner, Study of Sea (c. 1820-30) © Tate

Turner, Study of Sea (c. 1820-30) © Tate

The most natural instinct at the end of this exhibition is to start again and re-examine the early output in light of the journey one has undertaken through the labyrinthine layout. I left the exhibition wondering how these amazing and varied works would look alongside some of the later British masters of the sea: inter alia Alfred Wallis, Joan Eardley, and Maggi Hambling…

Percy Darukhanawala is an MA student at the Courtauld

Turner and the Sea is at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich until the 21st April 2014.


Courtyard, Madrasa Bou Inaniyam Fez, Morocco

Courtyard, Madrasa Bou Inaniyam Fez, Morocco

This year’s Frank Davis Memorial Lecture Series, titled Histories in Transition, explores the theme of historicism in visual art of the modern period. For the third lecture in the series, Rémi Labrusse, of Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre, described idealist visions of the Islamic Middle East in nineteenth-century art and scholarship. Prof. Labrusse began the talk with an apology for his imperfect English, and then spoke in elegant English, and with perfect clarity, for the following hour. This was one of those rare moments, for me, which define what art history is all about: capturing the rich and complex ways in which artefacts and images incorporate the values and meanings of the culture that produced them. A tile pattern from the Alhambra, transcribed to a nineteenth-century pattern book, inflects the crisis in the self-image of imperialist Europe; or describes the shift from figuration to geometric abstraction in the history of decorative art. The narratives that intersect the visual object are never exhausted – and that’s what makes art history so fascinating.

Rémi Labrusse’s account traced two broad ideological tendencies that governed visualisations of Islam in nineteenth-century Europe. The first of these, termed orientalism, describes the construction of a fictive, exotic world, embodying values imperilled by the rise of industrial capitalism. In the works of painters such as Jean-Léon Gerôme or Frank Dillon, the Arabic world was projected as a fantasy realm, absent of modernity, an erotic blend of timeless sophistication and heathen barbarism. As Labrusse described, the inherent tensions in the imperialist project are implicit in the paintings: the ‘Orient’ was defined by its isolation from modernity, so these depictions can describe only its defilement, or its demise. Vasily Vereschagin’s horrifying Apotheosis of War (1871), a desert pyramid of skulls with feeding crows, echoes the meticulous naturalism of  Gerôme’s Arabian palace scenes: these are opposing perspectives on the same imperialist project. The history painting aesthetic, employed in the depiction of a fictionalised actuality, fails to suppress the underpinning brutality of nineteenth-century colonialism.

In opposition to the orientalist fantasies of the genre painters, Labrusse suggests that a more culturally sensitive, Islamophilic tendency emerged in European visual culture in the second half of the nineteenth century. Studies of Islamic ornamentation, by authors such as Owen Jones, became exemplary texts in the movement to reform the decorative arts, following the aesthetic debacle of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Rather than serving as a figure of exoticism and colonial conquest, Islamic art offered, for the Islamophiles, a dazzling contrast to the decadent styles of the ‘age of ugliness’.

The lecture concluded with the outline of a fascinating hypothesis – my scribbled notes are a poor record of Labrusse’s subtle ideas. Among the reformists, he suggests, Islamophilia became a means of reformulating the Romantic project of classical renewal. Islamic tradition, unlike Greek and Romantic antiquity, offered a ‘weak’ model for European modernity, a path to aesthetic renewal without the oedipal constraints of the classical tradition. I am in danger of misrepresenting his arguments, so I better stop there. French readers can find more on this fascinating theme in Labrusse’s  Islamophiles: l’Europe moderne et les Arts d’Islam, published in 2011.