Through out the V&A’s most recent exhibition on John Constable the artist’s attention to detail is apparent. His progress is charted from initial copied etching to the large projects which required confidence and careful skill. Although he is famed for his paintings of ethereal clouds I was also impressed by overall feeling of movement present through out his paintings.
Constable painted the scenes which surrounded him. His paintings capture both scenes which appear to only exist in that moment and views which will remain eternal. I went to the exhibition with a friend who knows the areas of Suffolk and Essex which Constable lived in well. She could recognise bends in a river of his landscapes and church steeples which poked through trees. This familiarity allowed the views to seem fresh even when they included hay wains and working mills.
There were several instances where multiple versions of a painting were exhibited side by side. This was fascinating as it uncovered the development of Constable’s vision for each creation. The Hay Wain slowly included a playful dog, a boy drinking from the river in a red waistcoat and a rainbow as Constable neatened up the picture and assessed what was still visually needed. The addition of the dash of red balances the picture and draws the viewer to the boy’s playful face. In another picture a white horse which is introduced into a stormy landscape provides a contrast to the dark clouds overhead.
At times the exhibition felt repetitive as it hung such similar paintings side by side. This feeling was particularly strong during the rooms which included comparisons of etchings and Constable’s attempts to copy them. Sadly, the main difference at this point which could be noticed were to Constable’s detriment as he is still learning his strengths and the techniques necessary.
However, my frustration with the repetition of images was softened at the end of the exhibition when three paintings of similar tree trunks were hung side by side. One was an original image by a Dutch master which had inspired Constable’s own work. This painting in turn led Lucien Freud’s study on a tree trunk, entitled ‘After Constable’s Elm’, which was the third painting hanging. This thread drawing together centuries of artists through such a simple theme demonstrated that sometimes imitation can be more than just the height of flattery.
With such variety provided by paintings of ominous dark clouds, cheerful rustic scenes and vibrant city scenes I very much enjoyed this exhibition, although I feel as if I learnt more about the process of training to be an artist in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than about Constable himself. However, I am now planning to see the exhibition on his rival Turner at the Tate!
The exhibition continues until 11 January 2015.