ONE heavy rain falls on a sparkling gray sea. The wind shakes sulking clouds over low-lying horizons. Cloudy skies cast a pale glow on the ground. Thunder and gloom, murky brown rivers, corn standing solid as a wall at the edge of the field under paint showers, thick as mortar. It’s summer in John Constables England.
Or, to be more precise, it is the season of the late Constable (1776-1837), painted in grief after grief. The Royal Academy’s amazing new show may open with some early cloud studios and Constable’s The jumping horse, the last of his so-called Six-Footers, but almost everything here was made after the death of his wife Maria in 1828. Constable was left to raise seven small children on his own, at the age of 52. He bore grief. the rest of his life.
The devastating oil “sketch” of Hadleigh Castle, for example, was painted during her last illness. With its ruined towers and black birds circling in the cool white air over endless flat areas, this desolate sight is shot through with grief and fear. Its origin lies in a pencil sketch made even before he met Maria, as if a dark memory of life before her suddenly reappeared in this storm of turbulent brushstrokes. “I will never again feel as I have felt,” Constable wrote to his brother, “- the face of the world has totally changed for me.”
Like The jumping horse – where river, rider, barge and horse can barely be distinguished in the mass of clumsy paint – the sketch for Hadleigh Castle is completely unprecedented. Five or six feet wide, painted on canvases that were probably glued to the studio wall, these so-called sketches are a mixture of spontaneously swinging brushstrokes that hardly shape themselves according to the scenes they describe. Constable worked on them for several months at a time, saying only that they were not for public consumption, compared to the finished “exhibition” versions. They cost him dearly, made him nothing and were never shown in his lifetime.
But they are the essence of this show, which is full of art made mainly for himself. Dawn breaks like a needle of white paper in a piece of dark ink. A woman under a tree melts like wax in a sizzling brown oil paint. A sketchbook lies open, showing Constable’s watercolor of a Sussex chalk bank, newly excavated to reveal the sight of a human skeleton. In Tate’s famous Salisbury Cathedral from Meadows it is almost impossible to excavate humans and animals from the morass of floating rivers: either as figures or simply separate brushstrokes.
These paintings are turbulent, agitated, dizzying to look at. The eye goes in over the surface, as if searching for fossils in slate or shells on a beach, startled by every little incident. Everywhere you look, there is some strange mark, which is often made with a blade like a brush. The paint gathers, adheres, lubricates the canvas, grazes the tissue; it is viscous, slow moving, dense, always strangely opaque. Whatever the titles claim – whether this is Old Sarum, Flatford Lock or Brighton Beach – what you are looking at, above all else, is the paint’s mysterious behavior and potential.
Deceased constable never pretends to be simple illusion. An almost comical candid post next door A farmhouse near the water’s edge recognizes that “the brushstrokes make the objects in this painting a little difficult to see”. This is meant to reassure young visitors, but can do just as well for adults facing one of Constable’s most inchoable works. And there are a few other paintings in this exhibition where the subject – a biscuit tin hut, for example surrounded by hollyhocks – is far less interesting than the way it is made.
Humans are small, just as lost in these landscapes as Wordsworths Lucy, the ethereal heroine of Lyrical Ballads, “half hidden from view”. Commanded to illustrate As you like it, Constable draws a tree flaring upwards; it is more or less impossible to distinguish the melancholy Jacques who sat together between its roots. His memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds, deceased president of the Royal Academy, shows only an empty plinth in a clearing. Look at his quickfire sketch by Michelangelo Taddei Tondo, bequeathed to RA when Constable was an academic, and you would hardly know that he depicted a sculpture as much as ghosts flickering like fire: a vision of movement, power, and spirit.
Constable tried and failed to become an academic year after mortifying year, rejected each time. He was a student at the RA schools in the early 20s and showed consistently in the annual exhibition. But he was not elected until his 53rd birthday was approaching. This show is an even more belated recognition from the Royal Academy, therefore: its first investigation since Constable’s unexpected death at the age of 60.
Anyone looking at these late works can hardly fail to notice what Turner liked to mock: the peculiarly conspicuous dots, specifically of red, with which Constable indicates a dog’s tongue, a jacket, a distant figure. The difference between these two contemporaries is proverbial: essentially dematerialization versus its pictorial opposite. But both were radical beyond anything ever known in English art.
Stonehenge, painted by Constable, is a collection of toppled rocks under the far greater phenomenon of Empyrean – the roaring, roaring sky, all sky-writing and radiant clouds. Two rays from outer space, as it seems, whiz right down to the center of the circle: rainbows of radiant light arriving from before antiquity.
Dark rivers move, black on black, in the huge oil sketches. Look deep, and each time is filled with sensation: the memory of damp undergrowth, the smoky cold of autumn, drops sounding on still water. But none are specifically described. The cliché is that Constable prefigures modernism, specifically abstract expressionism. But his marks are so wild and heartfelt that they make Americans look decent, even if they somehow remain figurative.
And Constable can do this even on the smallest scale. One of the largest works here is among the smallest, not much larger than a paperback. It shows the ocean far away across a beach glowing and sparkling during an impending storm. The horizon is cut in with the handle of the brush, the clouds are quickly pressed around the sky. It is an intriguing sight, heavy with doom, yet painted with unparalleled precision. Until something breaks in the painting – and maybe also in the painter. Black rain begins to whiz down the surface in violent sweeps, as if the middle could not hold. But is it weather, or is it pure paint, and what do you see first – the exciting riddle of the late Constable.
Late Constable is at the Royal Academy, London, until February 13, 2022