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Landscapes with an English accent: Clark Art Institute features paintings of John Constable and J.M.W. Turner

  • “The Wheat Field,” oil on canvas by John Constable, 1816. The painting is part of a new exhibit at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. Image courtesy Clark Art Institute

  • “Yarmouth Jetty,” oil on canvas by John Constable, 1822-23. Image courtesy Clark Art Institute

  • “Osmington Village,” oil on canvas by John Constable, 1816-17. Image courtesy Clark Art Institute/Yale Center for British Art

  • “Salisbury Cathedral from the River Avon,” graphite on paper by John Constable, 1829. Image courtesy Clark Art Institute

  • “Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water,” oil on canvas by J.M.W. Turner, 1840. Image courtesy Clark Art Institute

  • “Saumur from the Île d’Offard, with the Pont Cessart and the Chateau in the Distance,” watercolor, gouache, pen and ink on paper by J.M.W. Turner, 1830. Image courtesy Clark Art Institute

  • “The Tower of London,” watercolor and graphite on paper by J.M.W. Turner, 1794. Image courtesy Clark Art Institute

  • “Wolf’s Hope, Eyemouth,” watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper by J.M.W. Turner, 1835. The painting was inspired by the work of Scottish novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott. Image courtesy Clark Art Institute



Staff Writer
Thursday, January 03, 2019

One never left his native Britain, and he also spent most of his life in southern England, where he was born. The other traveled widely not just in the United Kingdom but in Europe, visiting France, Germany and Switzerland.

But both John Constable and Joseph Mallord William Turner — the latter better know as J.M.W. Turner — shared a love and a talent for landscape painting. The Romantic era artists and contemporaries (Turner was born in England in 1775, Constable in 1776) are recognized today as two of Great Britain’s premier landscape painters and a vital influence on other European painters of their era. 

Their unique approaches to depicting light and color, as well as their subjects, were instrumental in making landscape an important genre of painting, experts say, given that subject had long been considered less important than portraiture or historical painting. Now the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown is taking a fresh look at both artists in the museum’s newest exhibit, “Turner and Constable: The Inhabited Landscape.”

The exhibition, which is drawn primarily from the Clark’s collection but also features several pieces from the Yale Center for British Art and the Chapin Library at Williams College, includes over 50 paintings, drawings, prints and watercolors. The show runs through March 10. 

Clark curatorial associate Alexis Goodin, who led a recent tour of the exhibit, said so much has been written and said about Constable and Turner over the years that “the challenge is finding a new way to think about their work.”

As such, the Clark show focuses on landscapes (and seascapes) in which the two artists give significant importance to human figures. Though the land and sea remain the focus of the work, the people depicted are not there just to provide a sense of scale: They’re harvesting crops, or watching ships or walking along a beach, at all times engaged or observing the landscapes.

“Both [artists] were very interested in showing how people used the land,” said Goodin.

In one of the exhibit’s key works, the abstract oil “Rockets and Blue Lights” by Turner, a steamship labors in heavy seas off an unidentified coast (the painting may have been inspired by the sinking of several steamboats during a violent storm near Liverpool in 1839, according to exhibit notes). Several bystanders to the left, one peering through a telescope, watch from the shore, while other unseen people fire off rockets to warn the ship of its closeness to shallow, rocky water. 

Turner painted other scenes of disaster such as fires and dramatic weather events, Goodin noted, given the sense of awe and fear people could experience from nature’s wrath. “Again, he’s showing people active within a landscape, though in this case there’s a real threat at hand,” she said.

Several other works by Turner feature a more bucolic, contemplative aesthetic, such as watercolors of medieval bridges in river towns in France and Germany and a mountain lake and valley in Switzerland. The bridges, buildings and landforms are more clearly defined in these paintings, though the people depicted near the water — women washing clothes, men loading cargo onto boats — are loosely rendered.

Turner was recognized for his artistic genius in his day — he entered the Royal Academy of Arts in London when he was just 14 — though some critics took exception to his increasingly abstract work as he grew older (it didn’t help that many considered him eccentric and anti-social). Goodin says that when “Rockets and Blue Lights” was first exhibited in Britain, one wag deemed the painting so indecipherable “that it wouldn’t look any different if it were hung upside down.”

Painting rural landscapes

Constable, who spent most of his life in southern England except for some painting trips to England’s Lake District, near the Scottish border, was particularly entranced by countryside scenes and later by seascapes, most of them inspired by the places where he lived or visited. "I should paint my own places best,” he once wrote to a friend.

One of his most appealing pieces in the exhibit is “Osmington Village,” an oil from 1816-17 that’s an homage to the Dorset town where he and his wife, Maria Bicknell, spent their honeymoon. The painting is centered on a view extending downhill along a dirt road to a small cluster of buildings comfortably nestled in trees, including a vicarage where smoke spills gently from a chimney.

A few people and a horse and cart move along the road; in the distance, green, open hills rise about the valley, all of it set beneath a summery sky and scattered clouds.

It’s the kind of landscape that recalls William Blake’s evocation of England as “that green and pleasant land.” Along the same lines is Constable’s “The Wheat Field,” also from 1816, an idyllic rural scene in which several people cut down standing wheat, others bundle the sheaves and some likely poorer people glean leftover seeds that they can later use for their own crop.

Paintings such as “The Wheat Field” offer a mix of realism and softer, less formal imagery — some of the earliest examples of naturalism, which paved the way for impressionism later in the 19th century. Work like this electrified painters in the Paris Salon in 1824, when Constable’s work first appeared there, according to Olivier Meslay, the Clark’s director.

He notes that French artists such as Théodore Rousseau and Jean-François Millet, both later key members of the Barbizon school of painters in France, were strongly influenced by Constable. “French painting was never the same after him,” Meslay said.

Constable also painted more expansive and somewhat abstract scenes, like “Cloud Study” from 1823, an oil of swirling masses of different-colored clouds. His “Yarmouth Jetty” from that same period is dominated by the sky, full of tumbling clouds that dwarf a number of sailing ships and the actual jetty below.

For his part, Turner also drew on literary works as source material for some of his landscapes; Goodin points to his 1822 oil painting “What You Will!,” the subtitle of Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night,” which shows a number of elaborately dressed people cavorting in a lush, wooded garden.

Constable and Turner evidently shared some degree of rivalry. Goodin says both artists recognized the other’s talent. But a story in the Manchester (UK) Guardian earlier this year noted that the painters had a row in 1831 “that rumbled on for years.” Both had paintings that year in a London exhibit, put together by Constable, and Turner objected when Constable swapped one his paintings, at the last minute, for one by Constable in one of the gallery’s best positions.

Regardless, the two painters made an indelible contribution to landscape painting, as exhibit notes put it: “Their inspired choices of subjects and the distinctive way in which they composed their views, together with innovative brushwork, helped elevate a traditionally overlooked genre.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Turner and Constable: The Inhabited Landscape”
is on view at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown through March 10. For additional information, visit clarkart.edu.