“John Constable: Drawings, Watercolors, Oil Sketches, and Paintings from a Private Collection” at the Frick Collection, New York.
November 15, 1994–February 12, 1995

In art, the danger of familiarity is not contempt but inattention. The bucolic subject matter of John Constable’s art is so familiar that we are constantly tempted to relax our attention just when we need our wits at their sharpest and most percipient. The difficulty of Constable is that he is superficially so easy. In our mind’s eye, we have trod through Stour Valley, past Constable’s hay wains and ramshackle locks and cathedrals hundreds of times. But what have we seen? Having gazed upon Constable’s Hay Wain in the Salon of 1824, Delacroix saw enough to drop everything and go to England to study Constable’s work. Delacroix was certainly more exotic than Constable. But who, finally, was the more daring? The painter and critic Patrick Heron has called Constable “the single most revolutionary influence on western painting in the last hundred and seventy years.” Delacroix would have understood what Mr. Heron was getting at. It is more difficult for us. Why? Writing in 1908, the German art critic Julius Meier-Graefe observed that Constable’s art “did not reveal certain hitherto unnoted aspects of a given object … but simply variations of the beautiful, which is eternal.” Part of the problem is that we have lost sight of the realities that words like “beautiful” and “eternal” name. We have taken this to be part of our modern cleverness; but perhaps it is part of the handicap, the damage, that makes us assume that Constable is familiar, easy, aesthetically dispensable.

The Frick’s remarkable exhibition of nearly one hundred works by Constable is a good antidote to this presumption. Spanning the artist’s entire career, from the early 1800s through the mid-1830s (Constable died in 1837, in his sixty-second year), the exhibition, from the collection of David Thomason in Toronto, consists almost entirely of works that have never been seen before in this country. The Frick owns two mature and highly finished masterpieces by Constable, The White Horse (1819) and Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Garden (1826), which are on view in its permanent galleries. This exhibition, in the Frick’s basement galleries, concentrates on the more intimate, more “essayistic” side of Constable. There are some fairly elaborate oil paintings and portraits on view, but most of the works are sketches of one sort or another: nature studies, efforts at capturing the elusive disposition of a landscape or a meteorological effect. Not every sheet is a success, but the total effect of the exhibition is breathtaking. Again and again, one finds oneself exclaiming, What draftsmanship! To quote from Patrick Heron again, “In every square millimetre there is the double experience for the eye—it savours the design of marks at the surface at the same instant that it sinks through and beyond the grey of pencil and the white of paper to the depths of the outdoor spaces so miraculously evoked.”

Constable went to school with Hobbema, Ruysdael, and other Dutch masters of landscape painting, but his mature work displays a freedom and personality that is all his own. Many of the sketches on view here were dashed off in situ: quick, bold sallies to fix the atmospherics of fugitive particularity on paper. In Meier-Graefe’s judgment, Constable “is never greater than here.” This is, he thought, partly because Constable’s finished pictures tend to betray an inhibiting “respect for an obsolete guild prescription,” but also because of the extraordinary vitality and spontaneity he infuses into his sketches. “It may be said of him,” Meier-Graefe concluded, “that no one before him dealt so naturally with art.” This naturalness is especially evident in what is perhaps the high point of the exhibition: the suite of cloud studies that Constable did on Hampstead Heath in 1821–22. These oil sketches, which typically bear Constable’s notation of the day, hour, and weather conditions on their backs, are physically small, most less than a foot square. But they communicate such an intensity of vision that one can almost sense the clouds scudding across the horizon. But do not bother to consult a picture book to experience this: Constable’s animation is completely lost in reproduction. These treasures must be seen in person or not at all.

A larger version of this exhibition was shown at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London from July 13 through October 16, 1994. Another version will be on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto from May 3 through July 9, 1995.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 Number 5, on page 45
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