Constable at the Tate

Tate Britain currently has an exhibition Constable: The Great Landscapes. It focusses on the ‘five-footers’, which are landscapes five foot across and include his most famous works like The Haywain and Salisbury Cathedral From The Meadows. Not only have they collected togther all of the paintings, but also nearly all of the full-size oil sketches he did for them.

View on the Stour near Dedham, 1822

The sketches are included not just because it enables you to see the development of the painting, but because it’s rather unique to do such large preparatory sketches. If nothing else it provides a new way of looking at potentially over-familiar work. There’s also, I think, a feeling that the sketches are more to modern taste than the actual paintings. Certainly I found that in some cases. If you’ve been brought up on the Impressionists, the less finished quality isn’t a problem, and the looser, livelier brush-strokes have their own appeal. They also often have a more dynamic use of colour and tone than the finished painting. In a couple of cases the slightly lurid effect even reminded me of El Greco, something I really wasn’t expecting at a Constable exhibition.

View of Toledo, El Greco, 1597

I couldn’t help wondering what Constable would think if he knew people preferred the sketches to the originals. Peeved, I expect. But there was a tendency for the later paintings to be sketchier and to use more dynamic colour and tone, so perhaps it’s something he would have understood. Although some of the sketches were duller and muddier than the final paintings, so perhaps one shouldn’t understand them as anything other than compositional exercises. Who knows. Unfortunately the Tate exhibition website only has quite small images of most of the works, so I can’t really illustrate the difference between the sketches and the paintings. The picture above is one of the finished works.

I wasn’t a huge fan of Constable and the exhibition hasn’t persuaded me, but it was an enjoyable enough way to spend an hour or so. I guess the fact I preferred some of the sketches suggests my problem with the work – it’s too well behaved, too orderly. I can admire it, but I just find it a tiny bit boring. Mind you, I suspect I’d find landscapes by his contemporaries (except Turner!) even more boring.

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