The Discovery of Constable

The Discovery of Constable

The Discovery of Constable

The Discovery of Constable

Excerpt

'In such an age as this, painting should be understood, not looked on with blind
wonder' — John Constable

Every great artist has to be discovered. Many are recognized and full acknowledged as such in their own lifetime. Genius, however, is by its very nature exceptional, difficult to evaluate even with hindsight, and full recognition of a great painter has often been the work of later generations. In some cases the discovery of a forgotten or neglected artist and the collecting together of a corpus of his work have taken place over a comparatively short period; in others the process has taken longer. In very few cases has it been as gradual and as complex as it has with Constable.

To only a limited extent was he discovered in his lifetime. For a few years in the 1820s his work was well noticed and highly praised both in London and Paris, but this spell of success was short-lived, and for the greater part of his working life it was rare for Constable's pictures to be greeted with anything more than qualified approval. Unlike Turner, he never managed to establish himself fully in the public eye, and at his death, outside a small circle of relations and friends, there was much uncertainty about his abilities and the nature of his art. His work could only be viewed by the general public at the two main annual exhibitions in London, the Royal Academy and the British Institution, and at occasional shows in the provinces. Between times, his pictures were seen by very few, as his work seldom found a buyer at an exhibition and almost always returned to his studio. The paintings he chose to exhibit represented only a part of his total output and little or nothing was known of the more experimental work, now so highly thought of, the full-size sketches for his six-foot canvases, the oil sketches he painted outdoors, his sky studies, the many hundreds of drawings and watercolours. Of the work of his Suffolk years, the very roots of his art, few even of his closest friends had the slightest knowledge.

Critics and public alike appear to have been unable to make up their minds about the paintings they did see. While able to praise him for the sparkle and freshness in his pictures, they found the work of his early maturity coarsely and carelessly painted, like sketches rather than pictures — for them, an important distinction. Later, he was treated with greater respect, but even then praise was . . .

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