Having spent my childhood gazing at Constable’s Flatford Mill on our living room wall, I had an antipathy towards Constable, this most English of English landscape painters. To me, his images were too simple, too real or just too boring. However, this is clearly not the case. With the Academies laying down the rules as to what a painting should consist of, Constable’s decision to paint a rural scene as it looks, was tantamount to sacrilege! However, Constable was keen to portray the world he knew well.
Constable’s handling of paint was also unusual for the time, the loose paintwork, tiny dots, use of chiaroscuro convey a sense of light and shadow that up to now, had been mainly used in interiors. When we look at Flatford Mill again, what we can see now is those brooding clouds in the distance, danger on the horizon that could be about to swamp those two boys hard at work.
The use of light connects Constable to my favourite artist of all: JMW Turner. Before modern art, there was Turner. Without him, there would have been no impressionists, pointillists, fauvism, and any other ism that followed. Where Constable never set foot outside of England, Turner could not stop travelling and this gave his paintings the edge over Constable’s. It is all about the light. Turner was fascinated by the way it could be described on canvas and the differing forms it took that he had seen on his travels was his reason d’etre.
In a favourite work, Dudley, Worcester (1832), Turner’s brushstrokes are even looser than Constable’s. His twilight sky conveys a grimness that signals the growing industrialisation of England and put that against the deep red glows In contrast to Constable, Turner was embracing the new technologies and their impact on the landscape.
Both men knew that they were taking painting into another realm, without them, our world would have remained constrained by rules and regulations so between them, they created a new palette for all the artists who followed.