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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

John Constable

If one were to take a census of painters today I think we'd find that there are more landscape painters (artists who primarily paint landscapes) than any other type. Of course in a country as broad and diverse geographically as ours, this is not altogether surprising. The tradition for landscape painting in this country is second only to portrait painting. I guess we could derive from this that we hold dear to us family first, and then the land. Yet in Europe, from whence we inherited most of our artistic antecedents, the art of painting the land is not all that ancient. Durer in the 1500s and Loraine and Poussin in the 1600s painted a few "scenes" as they were called then, as did Rubens. But it was left to the Dutch painters, Aelbert Cuyp, Jacob Van Ruisdael, and his pupil Meindert Hobbema to treat the landscape as anything much more than mere "backgrounds" and do any serious artistic study of the land around them.   
Although the French Rococo painters such as Watteau played with fantasy landscapes in the 1700s, in France, it took Barbizon painters until the 1850s to "discover" nature and real landscape painting. This discovery happened somewhat earlier in England as John Constable began a love affair with the English countryside in the early 1800s. Born in 1775, the son of an upper-middle-class miller, Constable drew on the landscape images of his youth in rural southern England. Although influenced by Van Ruisdael and Rubens, Constable undertook something approaching a scientific study of the sky, the land, the water, and the activities of his fellow countrymen he saw struggling to make the most of these natural elements.   
The White Horse, 1819, John Constable
One of Constable's most interesting works, bringing together all four of these interests, was his 1819 painting The White Horse. In the sky, we see his trademark clouds with a storm brewing in the distant far right side of the painting. The landscape is rural, but not wild, with numerous period structures giving evidence of man's long history of inhabiting the area. In the foreground is a pristine river upon which floats a barge with the white horse and it's attendants. It would appear to be the depiction of an actual location in that Constable seems to have struggled with the tendency of the scene to divide itself into three sections. Each third of the painting divided vertically works quite well as an independent composition. In fact, he seems to have had some success in solving this problem in that the left two-thirds also seems fairly satisfactory compositionally. However the right third, while pleasing enough in itself, has the most noticeable "divide" and seems not to contribute much to the rest of the painting. But then, who ever said landscapes were easy? No doubt, even Constable would agree.   

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