The late grand gendarme | Apollo Review

Extract from the December 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

What do we mean by “late” gendarme? It is simpler to speak of the late Turner, an artist who developed rapidly and lived to a very advanced age. With Constable, the situation is not so clear. First, due to family circumstances, he was approaching his mid-twenties by the time he began his formal training at the Royal Academy Schools, when many artists – including Turner – were admitted in their mid-teens. The delay continued to harass him; his status as a landscape painter retained him professionally and he was not elected royal academician until the age of 52. too early. He was only 60 years old, with a painting in progress and teaching duties to complete at the Academy. The Royal Academy exhibition is therefore the portrait of an artist in his fifties, a few months away, which for many would be an intermediate period. This exhibition, however, identifies 1825 as a turning point in Constable’s career. In the space of just three rooms, he convincingly argues that this year marked the beginning of significant changes, both in his approach to building compositions and in his working methods, which will transform his production for the rest. of his life.

The leaping horse (1825), John Constable. Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Limited; © Royal Academy of Arts, London

The spectacular first sight of “Late Constable” presents The leaping horse (1825) side by side with the large-scale oil sketch Constable created as part of his unique composition process. In a way, this marks an end rather than a beginning, as it is the latest in a large series of so-called “six feet”: large-scale paintings of scenes from the Suffolk Canal that Constable had made. throughout his forties and with whom he made a name for himself. And yet with The leaping horse something started to fall apart. “I must say that no painting has ever left my Easil with more anxiety on my part,” he confessed to his friend John Fisher, and, having been shown in the summer exhibition of the Royal Academy, the painting failed to sell. When he returned to Constable’s studio, he tinkered with it: having already added the tower of Dedham Church, he has now moved the position of a pollard willow. What was he doing? Worrisome, of course, unable to leave much alone – a trait, as the Conservatives point out, that will prevail over time. But more significant was the topographical juggling. In his career up to this date, Constable had made loyalty to nature a guiding principle; now he quickly and freely played with his beloved Suffolk scenes as he pursued a new vision.

Constable continued to make Suffolk the center of his art. What changes is the emotional temperature. here is A boat passing a lock (1826), where sunlight and rain sweep over the landscape – the work continues, it seems to say, in a world bathed in spiritual glory and suffering, light and darkness. It is both ordinary and astonishing, a joyous hymn to what it is to be alive in the world; one could hardly find a better illustration of what Constable meant by “the moral sentiment of the landscape”. Here is also another new beginning in which one reads a strong emotion – the enormous Hadleigh Castle (1828-1829), an unusual foray for him into a conventional gothic and picturesque subject he worked on following the death of his wife Maria from tuberculosis. The full-size oil sketch – also on display – looks dark and eerie with its rough sky and messy ground; but whether its vigorous and jerky handling reflects the artist’s “emotional turbulence”, as noted in the catalog, is questionable. Was the palette knife stabbing “fierce” – or, rather, forceful and superficial, a private shorthand he had developed?

A Boat Passing a Lock (1826), John Constable.  Royal Academy of Arts, London.

A boat passing a lock (1826), John Constable. Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Limited; © Royal Academy of Arts, London

As with his animated oil sketches, which never intended to leave his studio during his lifetime, when working with a brush or pencil in the privacy of sketchbook pages, Constable could draw regardless of what the critics would think. In a room devoted to works on paper, two luscious ink drawings by the Stour, just on this side of the abstract, show him playing with the medium, forgoing detail to explore the balance of light and The shadow. But the works that stop us in our tracks are the watercolors of two ancient sites, Stonehenge and Old Sarum, both on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum. Constable had shown little interest in the medium early in his career, but the poor health he experienced in the 1830s, which often made the physical effort of working on a large canvas too demanding, pushed him to get started. Stonehenge was based on a neat pencil drawing done on location in 1820, but when he returned to the subject in the mid-1830s he produced a watercolor that crackles with tension, from the stormy drama of the sky to the hare that shoots in the sky. foreground .

In the final room, dedicated to the 1830s, the curators show how Constable continued to experiment during those years. As a modern and urban subject The opening of the Waterloo Bridge 0f 1832 (represented here by a half-size oil sketch) shows him darting into what was, for him, a new territory of composition. But the dominant theme of the play is reflection; The agent was taking an emotional toll on what turned out to be his last years. It was a time of mourning, not only for his wife but also for others; “Thus, I am almost daily deprived of a friend or another,” he wrote sadly in 1833. He painted scenes near his birthplace in East Bergholt with such freedom that the painting, rushed over to the sea. canvas with a brush and a palette knife, threatens to obscure the object. It was as if he had internalized his beloved Suffolk landscape, and he now reappeared in dreamlike kaleidoscopic images.

Cenotaph in memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1833-1836), John Constable.  National Gallery, London

Cenotaph in memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1833-1836), John Constable. National Gallery, London

“Late Constable” concludes beautifully with Cenotaph in memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds, his contribution, as well as Stonehenge, at the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition in 1836. It is a deeply autumnal work that nods to the end of Titian and overflows with restrained emotion: the mourning of his old friend and mentor Sir George Beaumont, who had built the memorial in the grounds of his home, and respect for Reynolds, the first president of the Royal Academy (an institution to which Constable displayed admirable magnanimity). Although Constable’s death the following year was unexpected, visitors to the exhibit are tacitly urged to interpret the cenotaph as his own blessing – and it’s hard to refuse.

“Late Constable” is at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, New York, until February 13, 2022.

Extract from the December 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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