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Constable: The Making of a Master

19 September 2014 | Jessica Johnston

An unmissable exhibition revealing the hidden stories of how John Constable created some of his most well-known paintings.

Unrivalled in his ability to capture the mellow English countryside, John Constable is Britain’s best-loved artist. Transforming the genre of landscape painting, his work demonstrates poetic evocations of land, sea and sky with unequivocal freshness and vigour. From the River Stour to the Salisbury Cathedral, Constable: The Making of a Master invites visitors to take a journey into a world of images - painted and drawn, engraved and etched. Spanning seven rooms, this major display at the V&A will bring together over 150 works of art including such celebrated paintings as The Hay Wain (1821) and The Leaping Horse (1925). Through an exploration of his influences, techniques and legacy, the exhibition seeks to re-examine the work of this Suffolk-raised painter from student to Master.  

Constable painted things he knew, remarking ‘I should paint my own places best’. Born in East Bergholt, he became intimately familiar with rural Suffolk, intensely studying the landscape and sketching observations and motifs of nature. It was this scenic English countryside that informed his career and enabled him to revolutionize the outdoor oil sketch into a working tool of authority - a process by which he made some of his greatest and most recognisable compositions.

In 1799, Constable travelled to London to study at the Royal Academy of Arts. It was here that he began a lifelong relationship with his artistic heroes. Learning from the Old Masters, Constable meticulously copied their work as part of his schooling, reflecting on their compositions in his individual style. In the opening section of the exhibition, Rubens’ enchanting Moonlight Landscape sits next to Constable’s own masterful construction of a moonlit scene that perfectly captures the transient effects of light and atmosphere. When admiring such early works, it becomes immediately apparent that Constable was indeed a master in the making.

Using other artists’ paintings as teaching aids and inspiration, Constable made numerous copies of the Old Masters well beyond his student days. Displayed side by side for the first time, visitors play a game of spot the difference between paintings by Jacob van Ruisdael and Constable’s remarkably exact copies. Ironically, these replicas often sold for a higher sum than his own original sketches and studies.

During his lifetime, Constable was able to assemble a considerable art collection, mostly depicting subjects similar to those that he himself painted. Displayed in a montage of frames, visitors can admire prints by pioneering painters such as Titian, Rubens and Claude whose work was central to Constable’s practice. Following his death in 1837, the artist’s friend C.R. Leslie aptly recalled ‘Constable died as he lived, surrounded by art’.

Undoubtedly, the highlight of the exhibition comes with Constable’s outdoor oil sketchings. For Constable, painting was a way to understand the world; from an avenue of oak trees and a Suffolk plough to a raging sea and the every-changing cloud formations above. Richly painted sketches of his native countryside reveal Constable’s naturalistic approach to painting and demonstrate his genius ability to capture the changes of weather and light. Visitors can also see examples of his cloud studies, including sketches of Hampstead Heath and Brighton Beach. Although small in scale, each sketch manages to seize its subject and show ‘nature caught in the very act’.

Of course the exhibition would not be complete without Constable’s renowned ‘six-footer’ oil paintings such as The Hay Wain and The Leaping Horse, which sit next to their original full-scale oil sketches. The artist painted these impressive sketches before starting the final work so as to resolve the compositions, colours and light values. Constable’s large-scale paintings are certainly impressive and a highlight of the display, however there is more to the artist than his best-known works. This exhibition showcases his groundbreaking, expressionistic sketches alongside the Old Masters that shaped his thinking to offer a new insight into the greatest landscape painter in British art.

Constable: The Making of a Master is on at the V&A from 20th September – 11th January 2015. Tickets cost £9 - £14, available here.

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