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Turner & Constable: Contributions to the Romantic Landscape Painting

November 19, 2010

A landscape painting is different from any other genre. “A landscape is part of the natural continuum, unlike an apple or human figure, which are more easily defined as separate identities.”i  You see, it can be practical to paint a man life size, but a landscape can never be life size or larger. A landscape painting can never be a direct imitation of its subject, but in the eyes of the Romantics, it can evoke the emotion and power of its subject in you through the canvas. To understand the Romantics, step away from the Enlightenment way of thought telling us that nature is something orderly, predictable, and can be controlled by human laws.ii Step away from the thinking a moody landscape can not be compared to the many types and moods of humans.iii The Romantic landscape painters did not seek to control nature, they sought to capture the fascinating, ever-changing and unpredictable moods of it through scale and treatment of space, brushstroke and new relations of color to tone.iv The Romantic landscape painter often sought to capture the sublime, an aesthetic category with a strong emphasis on sensationv, defined in 1756 by Edmund Burke as, “when we witness something that instills fascination mixed with fear, or if we stand in the presence of something far larger than ourselves.”vi These ideas so characteristic to the Romantic landscape stemmed from artists such as Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) who devoted his early work to the theme of nature as a cataclysmic force that overwhelms human beings and their creations;vii and the artist John Constable (1776-1837), who captured the calmer moods of nature with “unprecedented spontaneity and freshness,” on a large scale. viii
Turner’s work is centered in the sublime, and tends to capture the theatrical side of Romantic landscape painting. Turner is said to have relished nature’s dramatic contours and effects, it’s mountain scenery, waterfalls, avalanches, conflagrations and storms, and within them he discovered a powerful expressive ingredient that he would make a part of his work, referred to as the “landscape sublime.”ix
After entering the Royal Academy in 1789, and being elected full academician at the age of twenty-seven, he became a professor in the Royal Academy school.x It was here that he helped revolutionize the “British watercolor tradition by rejecting underpainting and topographic accuracy in favor of a freer application of paint and more generalized atmospheric effects.” This new technique would lead to some of the loosest and most painterly brushstrokes ever seen in Western art up to his time in his work titled, The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834.xi This painting is among the best examples of how Mother Nature often has the last word in worldly and human affairs, able to hinder even the most noblest of aspirations.xii Turner captures this idea by being more faithful to feeling than to the direct imitation of the event. Although the work accurately depicts the crowds and bridge, the scale and color of the flames and nature surrounding them is greatly exaggerated to evoke their mood and destructiveness on the canvas.xiii
Turner’s Snowstorm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps marks the first appearance in oil of Turner’s characteristic formal invention of swirling vortexes of color and brushstroke.xiv This work, like The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, also evokes the awesomeness of nature. His sky turns into a massive vortex of wind and snow that even seems to threaten to take out the sun. The soldiers depicted as a spec on the horizon, lead by their Carthaginian general Hannibal on the back of an elephant, seem subject to annihilation from the storm that dwarfs them. Because of this tragic and sublime depiction, this painting is thought to be a foretelling of their eventual defeat against the Roman armies in 218 BCE, and to be analogous to the contemporary political events of Napoleon.xv
One could compare the work of Constable to the technique of farming in the shaping of the natural world. In order to make nature work to the farmers advantage a farmer must be aggressive, must rearrange natural patterns, and like the farmer Constable is true to nature in order to reshape it.xvi The landscapes of Constable’s childhood are what made him a painter before picking up a brush, and this drive was influenced later by the British topographic watercolor tradition of the late 18th century and by the landscapists of the 17th century, and moved to dedicate himself to the painting of monumental views of the landscapes of his youth in 1816. Later, in 1832, Constable opposed the establishment of the English National Gallery of Art because he thought it might distract painters from studying nature afresh.xvii He found this to be a necessary part of the landscapists work because of the nature of the world as he saw it:
Wide; no two days are alike, nor even two hours; neither were there ever two leaves of a tree alike since the creation of the world, and the genuine productions of art, like those of nature, are all distinct from each other.xviii

This view is what made him stick so closely to the truth. His concern and belief was that the uniqueness of nature should be reflected in art, and in his work, he would not copy the peculiarities of appearances, but “pattern particulars in a way that would embody the real.”xix His aim of realism was not of a spirit of detachment, but the outcome of a powerful emotion. xx Adverse to the theatrical, he wrote that,
“[p]ainting should be understood, not looked on with blind wonder, nor considered only as poetic aspiration, but as a pursuit, legitimate, scientific and mechanical.”xxi
Constable stuck so close to fact that he would often use dabs of unmixed color on his canvas to capture his initial sensations, like in his work titled, The White Horse (1819. 53 ¾ x 74”). This is the first of the large (around six feet tall) River Stour Paintings series, depicting a summer day in the Stour River valley after a passing storm with a horse being ferried across the side of the river in the first third of the painting. Beyond the barge a small island lies between the river and the mill stream, called a ‘The Spong,’ and just to the center is Willy Lott’s house in the distance, and obscured by trees to the right is the Gibbonsgate Farm.xxii Along with the use of pure color he has also used daps of white paint on the water and foliage to capture the glistening effect of the sunlight.xxiii The time of day, the humidity in the air and the smell of the earth all seems to be captured on the canvas.
The third work in this series is The Haywain (1821. 51 ¼ x 73) in which we are shown the view from below Flatford Mill looking at Willy Lott’s house. This happened to be a familiar scene for Constable, as it was his father’s first home and the birth place of his siblings which only added to the nostalgia of the painting. During a time of industrialization this scene of man in nature, and nature’s reciprocal interactionxxiv made this piece enchanting to its viewers. The bright sky and the way the sunlight glistens off of the water and foliage also adds to the calm and peace people find when standing in front of this massive landscape. Karl Krober beautifully explains the effectiveness of the luminosity and atmosphere in The Haywain here:
The luminosity of the invisible atmosphere, when our eye returns to the reflected sheen in front of the wain, stimulates our awareness of the brightness of the air we see through as we see into the painting. Our sense of this omnipresently impalpable medium, the breath of life, helps to evoke our feeling that all the distinct objects in the picture are invisibly united in a living activity more significant than their isolating outlines.xxv

Most Constable’s efforts actually went into depicting these atmospherics and to sharpening the image’s overall clarity and form.xxvi The painting as a whole shows a moment of tranquility and stasis, and the stream in the middle seems to act as a passage evoking this sense of continuity in nature.xxvii Also thought to be symbols of the continuity of natural existence are the overgrown buildings and the water-worn posts in the stream.xxviii
At the beginning of the 18th century was a time when picturesque meant a natural scene appearing to be derived from a picture or from artifice. This meaning changed with the Romantics into the 19th century, toward reference to landscape that which “ought to be pictured, a scene that was a potential subject, a source, for creation of an art work.”xxix Turner conveyed the overwhelming power of nature and the sublime found within, while Constable captured its tranquility and calm while looking for the truth in depicting it. The revolutionary brushwork and use of pure, bright and powerful colors in Turner’s works showed the Romantic view of Mother Nature as dominant. The scale of of Constable’s work, although tranquil, showed this view on a literally large scale with his series of six foot paintings. The human relationship to nature as small, inferior and dependent was depicted in both artists’ treatment of space where any human or animal life is painted in the lower quarters of their work, tiny in scale compared to the elements of nature. Although though these two artists are paired together as exact contemporaries, their approach to depicting nature differed in that Turner sought to capture emotion, perpetually aiming to be extraordinary, while Constable sought to capture somewhat lower order aspects such as the grass being wet, the meadows flat, and the boughs shady;xxx Turner, the philosopher of art, and Constable the scientist.



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