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Friday, December 12, 2014

John Linnell

The Eve of the Deluge, 1848, John Linnell
(notice the ark along the right edge of the painting).
John Linnell, Self-portrait, ca. 1860
Whatever trade, craft, or profession one embarks upon, it almost goes without saying that you have to compete. For most people that's a relatively minor part of their lives, but the higher one rises on the socio-economic pyramid, the more it becomes a factor. A clerk in a store has simply to be adequate. An athlete must be competitive in both mind and body, not to mention having a rather high pain threshold and the self-discipline to push beyond their own perceived limits. In many ways, a really successful, really outstanding artist, must be much like the athlete, except perhaps for the pain part; although I used to remind my students that painting begins with "pain." That's a play on words, of course, though I doubt if there are very many artist who've not endured some degree of painful discomfort in pursuing their goals. For the English landscape painter, John Linnell, working during most of the 19th-century in London, that meant he had to compete with the great John Constable, considered the best English landscape artist who ever lived. John Linnel was competitive, but not so much as to ever rise beyond second or third place next to his friend, J.M.W. Turner. In that some critics would consider Turner to be on a par with Constable or even surpassing him, Linnell is usually ranked as an "also-ran."

The Eve of the Deluge, 1840, John Martin
Landscape with Figures,
1816, John Linnell
I've been to many art shows in which I brought home a "third place" ribbon. It's nothing to be sneezed at and certainly better then the ignoble "honorable mention" category I've always hated. When you're classed with Constable and Turner you're in some pretty noble company--exceptional if not outstanding. Some might insist upon adding a slightly earlier English painter, John Martin, to this competition. The problem is, Martin tended to be a painter of gigantic biblical extravaganzas--Cecil B. DeMille with a paintbrush--so to speak, rather than agricultural landscapes as did Linnel (left) and Constable. It's fascinating to compare Linnel's The Eve of the Deluge (top), from 1848, with the slightly earlier Martin version (above). Interestingly, Linnel's depiction appears the more theatrical of the two. It's quite possible Linnel may have been influenced by Martin's effort.

Coast Scene at Cullercoats near Whitley Bay, ca. 1834, John Linnell
Study of a Tree, 1806,
John Linnell
I've already alluded to the fact that Linnell was fond of painting rural agrarian landscapes, and it's along this line that he and Constable are comparable. John Linnell was born in 1792, making him sixteen years younger than his rival. Constable has become known for his mastery of clouds. As can be seen in Linnel's Coast Scene at Cullercoats near Whitley Bay (above), from around 1834, the younger artist, knew a thing or two about clouds as well. Also like Constable, Linnell often painted peasant farmers harvesting or tending livestock. However they differ in that Linnell seems to have had an infatuation with the rising (or setting) sun rather than cloud formations. Beyond that Linnell often devoted himself to studying trees, the more gnarled and decrepit the better, as seen in his 1806 Study of a Tree (left). Is this the same tree, possibly from a different angle, as his 1816 Landscape with Figures (above, left)?

In Dovedale, 1814-15, John Linnel, a scene reminiscent of the American West.
Portrait of J.M.W. Turner,
1838, John Linnell
Linnel and Constable differ in one other important aspect. Constable was born in the picturesque Suffolk area of (east) England. Linnel was born in the Bloomsbury section of London. Thus, Constable was a "country boy" while Linnel was a "city kid." Linnel's father was a carver and gilder who exposed his son to the art world of London at an early age. Young John Linnel was selling portrait drawings by the age of ten. As a teen, Linnell was a student of Benjamin West and the watercolorist, John Varley. From West he learned portrait painting, and unlike Constable, Turner, and most other landscape artist, Linnel was very competent in this area as seen by his self-portrait (top, right) and his Portrait of J.M.W. Turner (left). Moreover, this skill was the difference between his earning a comfortable living as an artist and the virtual destitution of John Constable most of his life.

The Reapers, Noonday Rest, 1865, John Linnell
Mother and Child, 1845,
John Linnell
Although Constable and Linnel may have known one another, Linnel and Turner were, apparently close friends though, like Linnel and Constable, there was a similar sixteen-year difference in their ages. Though there were more similarities than differences in the works of Linnell and Constable, that was not the case with Linnel and Turner. No one would ever confuse the two. Turner never painted a farmer in his life and his landscapes tended toward the urban rather than the rural, though like Linnell, he was fascinated by the setting sun. Turner was what I'd call a swirling, atmospheric, pre-impressionist, often veering off toward expressionism, and on rare occasions, even Abstract Expressionism. Linnell, by way of contrast, sometimes got a little ephemeral in his pastoral delights, but for the most part, remained firmly grounded in the prevailing Realism of his day. His The Reapers, Noonday Rest (above) indicates a love of the landscape, but also a tendency toward genre as well. His Mother and Child (left), from 1945, is likewise an example of Linnell's diversity and versatility. Neither Constable, nor Turner especially, were much into painting figures.

The Prophet Balaam and the Angel, 1859, John Linnell
Linnell differs from the other two British painting icons in that he frequently depicted religious content, though his choice of subjects were sometimes rather obscure. His Eve of the Deluge (top), despite Martin's earlier version, would not have ranked very high on most painters' list of "must do" religious works. The same could be said of Linnell's Prophet Balaam and the Angel (above) from 1859. One gets the impression the landscape may have come first, the biblical element being mostly an afterthought, perhaps in helping to sell the work. Linnell's Christ's Appearance to the Two Disciples Journeying to Emmaus (below) affords us an opportunity to observe Linnell's watercolor skills (inset) used in preparation for what is, quite frankly, not one of his better works. In some respects, the watercolor seems more expressive (and thus more successful) than the oil painting.

Christ's Appearance to the Two Disciples Journeying to Emmaus, John Linnell
In comparing John Linnell with Constable and Turner, their younger colleague has a distinct advantage. He died in 1882. He was almost ninety years old. Moreover, he was able to paint until the final few years of his life, leaving behind a sizable oeuvre of which some 150 paintings are owned by museums. Neither of the other two artist came close to Linnel either in longevity or productivity. Constable died at the age of sixty-four, Turner was seventy-six. Likewise, neither Turner nor Constable were as successful financially as Linnell. Apart from his skills as a portrait artist, the two paintings below provide a clue as to his success. Both are of the same subject, the same composition, the same size, and probably painted consecutively, though there's no indication which came first, though probably painted for separate buyers. They even bear the same title. Yet, in terms of color, they are as different as...well, night and day.

The Last Load, 1853, John Linnell
The Last Load, 1853, John Linnell


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