Tuesday, December 28, 2010
images from artrenewal.org.
In his early career Constable made his living as a portrait painter. He was, I think a rather indifferent painter of heads. Because his portraits were very inexpensive he was able to survive only because of the inheritance from his family. An inheritance from his wife's family was quickly lost in a failed business adventure involving reproductions of his paintings that didn't sell very well.That happened much later than this, the portrait era. Someone in the comments asked to see some of the examples, unaware that Constable had painted portraits. They are seldom shown today and hardly foreshadow the great artist he was to become.
The portrait at the top is badly flawed. The figures only tentatively occupy the space in which they stand. The design is rather pedestrian and the overall grouping of the figures is weak. The forms of the heads are unconvincing, he doesn't quite express the difficult three quarter view of the heads. The painting seems a little like two canvasses sewed together, rather than one group of figures. The sitters look bored and a little taxidermal. The dog (lamb? rat? lemur?) jammed down into the lower left corner is a disaster.
Below is a portrait of his father successful miller, shipowner and grain merchant whose generosity allowed Constable to study painting and whose bequest upon hos death allow Constable to survive when his work went unsold.
Below is a portrait of Maria his wife, whose early death left Constable with seven children to raise.
Now I can hear you thinking, those portraits look pretty good to me. If they were done today they might be more highly regarded, but England of that era was a hotbed of portrait painters. Below are two examples of the Thomas Gainsborough (1727 – 1788) a great hero of Constable's who also painted landscapes. Constable was to outstrip him in that though.
I guess this is a taste test, I hope you can see how much better the Gainsborough portraits are than the Constables. The delicacy, fluid handling and immediacy of the Gainsborough's makes the Constables look a little homemade and primitive by contrast. That's why Constable got short money for them. If portraiture was all he had done, he would be forgotten today.
If you prefer the Constables, please refrain from telling me in the comments, and instead place a steel bucket on your head and roller-skate down the Guggenheim. I know who you are.