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Monday, January 3, 2011

English Landscapes

Imagine an artist so enraptured by nature he would often set and stare at trees for an hour at a time, as a friend put it, "...with an ecstasy one would devote to a child in his arms," or an artist whose sketches from nature were so detailed branches and leaves were painstakingly drawn one at a time over a period of days. Imagine an artist who would take a large, partially-completed painting some 40"x50" out on location so he could paint from nature at a time when doing so was practically unheard of. Imagine an artist so dedicated to building a career for himself that at the age of forty, he asked his fiancee to postpone their wedding until he completed a painting. She was not so dedicated. The wedding went on as planned. The painting was entitled Flatford Mill and the artist was John Constable.

Flatford Mill, 1817, John Constable
 Constable was born in 1776, the son of well-to-do mill owners. He studied at the newly established Royal Academy and was an admirer of the work of Rubens and the Dutch masters, though he never left England, nor indeed, strayed far from his home. To say he was a stickler for detail might be an understatement. He would often work on a single painting for close to a year, only to find no buyer and little appreciation of his work. During his lifetime, landscape was considered an inferior art. Constable's lifetime goal was to do something about this. Other artists appreciated his work and especially his painting technique. Eugene Delacroix is said to have studied Flatford Mill and the way Constable painted leaves, alternating complimentary colors with his greens. Delacroix went home and repainted similar areas in one of his own paintings.

Flatford Mill depicts a small canal in which horse-drawn barges must be unhitched so they may pass under a bridge from which Constable paints his view of the English countryside in which he grew up and loved so dearly. Constable is often highly admired for his clouds and skies, but the exquisite handling of his trees and hedgerows merits equal praise. Unfortunately, it was only as the quaint countryside began to disappear with the industrial revolution that the English learned to appreciate the God-given beauty of nature which Constable so worshipped. Although it was fifty years after his death before the art world began to miss what they no longer had, John Constable succeeded in his lifetime goal. He was single-handedly responsible for raising landscape painting to a par with the other developing types of English painting.

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