Friday, December 31, 2010

Constable 6

John Constable grew up on the stretch of river in the map above at the end of the 18th century. His father owned the large Flatford mill. He had a happy, even idyllic childhood playing along the banks of the river Stour. Below is a picture of the mill.

And here is a painting of the river and mill.

I think the reason that Constable painted as he did was because he was both extremely familiar with this landscape and he loved it. For Claude Loraine or Salvatore Rosa the landscape was a construct, something they invented from their imaginations.

Constable made innumerable studies of these locations and knew every inch of them intimately. He was sensitive to how they looked and how they made him feel. His art was based on experience of the place and not a constructed stage set from his imagination. Constable wanted to "get at" the real place and needed its actual appearance to do it. That drove him to study carefully how it looked, in the light and then to learn to depict that light.

Here is the house pictured in the Haywain, below.

The location of the painting can be found on the map above, look for Willy Lott's house. Each of the dots on that map locate the source of a major Constable painting. All are along perhaps a mile of river. This area is incidentally still unchanged and easily accessible. I have never been there, but I want to go and paint it before the death bunny arrives.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Constable 5

One of the commenters asked for me to clarify the differences in the handling of the Constable and the Loraine. Here are examples of each. The Constable is below ( detail of the Haywain) and the Loraine above. These images are clickable and you may want to see them larger to get what I am pointing out.

The Constable is made of flecks of light and is less concerned with the formal evocation of form that the Lorain. The Lorain looks like a head of broccoli. It is invented looking, and is a studio evocation of a tree. The forms are clearly delineated one in front of another as the masses of the tree recede toward the sky. This is intellectually correct and it does express what happens in some ideal tree in Arcadia. The Constable however is a real tree. The reason why is this.....

Above is a Constable drawing of a tree, obviously done in the field. It is a tree portrait, not an idealized tree. This actual study of nature preceded the paintings that Constable made and informed them.

Loraine made an invented tree having all of the workings of a real tree, but not observed from nature. Loraine is so concerned about the solidity of form in his tree that he misses what Constable did not, the half dissolved in light aspect of a tree out in the sunlight. Constable painted what a real tree looked like, not the structure, explained. Loraine painted an intellectually reduced "everytree". Loraine's tree is overly symmetrical and Constable's tree is full of the odd little "happenings" that go on in nature that would never be invented in the studio. He has captured the complex randomness and unfathomable complexity of real nature.

Tomorrow I will talk about why Constable painted nature in this manner.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Constable 4

images from

I want to point out the difference between Constables paintings and those of the landscapists who preceded him. Above is a John Constable. It is naturalistic, that is, it is believable looking, rather than idealized and "mannered". Constable really got the look of nature in a way that preceding landscapists did not.

Above is a Claude Lorain. The earlier landscapists often saw the landscape in a classical manner. That was a traditional way of representing nature that relied as much on tradition as reference to actual vision. Constables paintings are made up of what earlier painters would have called splotches of paint, blots. He was showing the shimmering light reflecting from the things he was painting. The earlier painters painted the substance of the objects, Constable painted the effect of light upon them.

The branches of the trees in the Loraine seem leathery and look like that popular pattern of stoneware called willow. They reek of the studio, and sometimes look like they were done by a man who had heard about trees but had never actually seen one. Look at the tree in the Constable above and compare it with the Loraine below. All of the paintings on this page are wonderful art, but the Constables represent a new interest in presenting the actual appearance of nature.

Above, Salvatore Rosa. The earlier landscapists still thought of the landscape as a stage set that needed to be dignified by the presence of mythological figures or some storytelling aspect. This idea was reflected in Reynolds opinions on the hierarchy of painting., The paintings needed the figures and the narrative content to be high art. The Dutch didn't usually feel the need to do this though and that attitude was certainly a model for Constable.

Above is a Rubens. Rubens was a particular hero to Constable and he drew a lot of influence from him. The Rubens is still "classical" but they do have something in them that reminds me of Constable. Their handling is still "mannered", or executed in a standardized way rather than in clear imitation of nature. Constable remarked, that he saw "no handling" in nature.

Above is a Dutchman, Ruisdael. The area Constable painted, along the river Stour is in East Anglia, a low flat country very similar to that which the Dutch inhabited. There is a fondness for this low country amongst landscape painters and Seago worked this area too.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Constable 3

images from

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.

Monday, December 27, 2010

John Constable 2

Constable manged to earn a living painting portraits but barely scraped by financially. His portraits were priced rather low compared to his contemporaries and having seen a few of them the reason seems clear enough. He was employed sometimes to make copies of other artists portraits by their owners. he did however receive a yearly stipend from the family milling and grain shipping business now run by a brother.

He married his childhood friend Maria Bicknell in 1816, she bore him seven children and died of tuberculosis in
1828. He dressed in black for the rest of his life and raised his seven children alone.

In 1819 Constable painted the "Haywain" the first of a series of what he called his six footers. This painting was seen by Theodore Gericault and he was picked up by a Parisian dealer who sold his paintings there with some success. The Haywain was shown at the salon in Paris and won a gold medal.

In Constables day the fashion was for landscapes like those of Claude Loraine with ruins and picturesque views often of Italy and including romantic figures of Gypsies or mythological figures. His naturalistic paintings were puzzling to the British, although the French had a greater appreciation for them. He was never extremely successful but was elected to the Royal Academy at the age of 52.

Part of what held Constable back was the hierarchy of painting as established by Joshua Reynolds. Those of you who have been teething on this blog for a while will remember my "translations" of the discourses of Josh Reynolds. Reynolds felt that the highest form of painting was history or allegorical painting, and that the other genres descended below it to landscape painting as the least important. In Constables time that was changing and Gainsborough and Turner eventually became respected for landscape paintings. Still Constables naturalistic paintings of everyday scenes were puzzling to his audience who expected more drama and less "real life".

Constable gave a series of well received lectures for the the Royal Academy on the history of landscape painting. He died in 1837 and was buried next to his wife.Today constable is remembered as England's greatest landscape painter, although some would prefer to place Turner in that spot.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

John Constable 1

Images from

The purpose of this blog is to be a delineation of the things I feel a painter, or most particularly a landscape painter ought to know. To that end I have written on art history as much as art technique. I think it of equal importance. I am going to turn my intention to arguably the most important and influential landscape painter , John Constable. He has always been a hero of mine and was the first great landscape painter I learned about as a young man in high school.

There were very few books on painting in those days, and those that were available were on the greatest of painters and except for a few of the French impressionists, almost never from the 19th century. So my taste was formed on Dutch painting and Constable. In a way that worked out well as these earlier artists formed as good base on which to build my later studies. They inspired all of the later painters that I would learn about as I grew into my twenties.

I constantly find students poorly informed on art history and that history before the 19th century is usually the least familiar to them. I have written some on the Dutch, now it is time Constable got his due. I am, of course, no scholar so this will be pretty basic. Sometimes I pretend I am writing the text for a comic book or baseball card. I hope that I can interest you in this history and you will go on with that familiarity to learn more.

John Constable was born in 1776 in Suffolk, England. His father owned a water driven mill and was a successful grain merchant. He grew up along a stretch of the river Stour and most of his well known paintings are of that small area. To this day that area is referred to as Constable country as he is one of Britain's most prized and popular painters.

Constable spent his youth roaming this lowland area and sketching, educated well he began a short lived career as a miller and corn merchant. However he wanted to be a painter so his father provided him with a small stipend and he enrolled in the school of the Royal Academy.

At the Academy Constable studied the work of the great painters including Rubens, who seems to me to have been a great influence and Claude Lorain, the little Dutch masters and Gainsborough who was from the same areas of England as John himself.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Magi.

Below is the text from Mathew chapter 2, describing the three magi, or wise men. They were likely Zoroastrian priests schooled in astrology from central Persia. Zoroastrianism dates back to about 600 years before the birth of Christ and was a dominant religion in the Holy Lands until the time of Alexander the Great, and still exists as a minority faith in Iran today. Herod, a king of Israel died in 4 AD. He was to order the death of all male infants up to two years of age in the Bethlehem area in an attempt to kill Christ. There are no records of this massacre other than in the Bible, however there are records that he killed his wife and two of his sons, so he was probably capable of it. Christ's family flees into Egypt until after Herod's death. In 2007 an Israeli archaeological team discovered Herods tomb.

1Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, 2Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. 3When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. 5And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, 6And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.

7Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. 8And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also 9When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was 10When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.11And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh 12And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.


art from the top; Rembrandt, Fabriano, Tintoretto.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Little Match Girl

Hans Christian Anderson wrote "The Little Matchgirl" in 1845 when his editor sent him a copy of the popular woodcut by Johan Lundbye pictured above. I read it to my family every year at Christmas and I will do that tonight. If you don't know it, here it is.

It was so terribly cold. Snow was falling, and it was almost dark. Evening came on, the last evening of the year. In the cold and gloom a poor little girl, bareheaded and barefoot, was walking through the streets. Of course when she had left her house she'd had slippers on, but what good had they been? They were very big slippers, way too big for her, for they belonged to her mother. The little girl had lost them running across the road, where two carriages had rattled by terribly fast. One slipper she'd not been able to find again, and a boy had run off with the other, saying he could use it very well as a cradle some day when he had children of his own. And so the little girl walked on her naked feet, which were quite red and blue with the cold. In an old apron she carried several packages of matches, and she held a box of them in her hand. No one had bought any from her all day long, and no one had given her a cent. Shivering with cold and hunger, she crept along, a picture of misery, poor little girl! The snowflakes fell on her long fair hair, which hung in pretty curls over her neck. In all the windows lights were shining, and there was a wonderful smell of roast goose, for it was New Year's eve. Yes, she thought of that! In a corner formed by two houses, one of which projected farther out into the street than the other, she sat down and drew up her little feet under her. She was getting colder and colder, but did not dare to go home, for she had sold no matches, nor earned a single cent, and her father would surely beat her. Besides, it was cold at home, for they had nothing over them but a roof through which the wind whistled even though the biggest cracks had been stuffed with straw and rags. Her hands were almost dead with cold. Oh, how much one little match might warm her! If she could only take one from the box and rub it against the wall and warm her hands. She drew one out. R-r-ratch! How it sputtered and burned! It made a warm, bright flame, like a little candle, as she held her hands over it; but it gave a strange light! It really seemed to the little girl as if she were sitting before a great iron stove with shining brass knobs and a brass cover. How wonderfully the fire burned! How comfortable it was! The youngster stretched out her feet to warm them too; then the little flame went out, the stove vanished, and she had only the remains of the burnt match in her hand. She struck another match against the wall. It burned brightly, and when the light fell upon the wall it became transparent like a thin veil, and she could see through it into a room. On the table a snow-white cloth was spread, and on it stood a shining dinner service. The roast goose steamed gloriously, stuffed with apples and prunes. And what was still better, the goose jumped down from the dish and waddled along the floor with a knife and fork in its breast, right over to the little girl. Then the match went out, and she could see only the thick, cold wall. She lighted another match. Then she was sitting under the most beautiful Christmas tree. It was much larger and much more beautiful than the one she had seen last Christmas through the glass door at the rich merchant's home. Thousands of candles burned on the green branches, and colored pictures like those in the printshops looked down at her. The little girl reached both her hands toward them. Then the match went out. But the Christmas lights mounted higher. She saw them now as bright stars in the sky. One of them fell down, forming a long line of fire. "Now someone is dying," thought the little girl, for her old grandmother, the only person who had loved her, and who was now dead, had told her that when a star fell down a soul went up to God. She rubbed another match against the wall. It became bright again, and in the glow the old grandmother stood clear and shining, kind and lovely. "Grandmother!" cried the child. "Oh, take me with you! I know you will disappear when the match is burned out. You will vanish like the warm stove, the wonderful roast goose and the beautiful big Christmas tree!" And she quickly struck the whole bundle of matches, for she wished to keep her grandmother with her. And the matches burned with such a glow that it became brighter than daylight. Grandmother had never been so grand and beautiful. She took the little girl in her arms, and both of them flew in brightness and joy above the earth, very, very high, and up there was neither cold, nor hunger, nor fear-they were with God. But in the corner, leaning against the wall, sat the little girl with red cheeks and smiling mouth, frozen to death on the last evening of the old year. The New Year's sun rose upon a little pathetic figure. The child sat there, stiff and cold, holding the matches, of which one bundle was almost burned. "She wanted to warm herself," the people said. No one imagined what beautiful things she had seen, and how happily she had gone with her old grandmother into the bright New Year.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

More of the Christmas story, illustrated

The verse I am presenting tonight from the book of Luke, chapter 2 occurs before that I posted last night. The blog is more a stream of consciousness affair than an orderly exposition, so here we are, backing through the gospel of Luke. There are so many paintings of the nativity to choose from, I chose those I thought were compelling artistically. Again I think the best is the Rembrandt, even with the little angels flying around in the corner it feels more real and less "mannered". Marys gentle gesture as she lifts the drape on the cradle to view the Christ child is poignant and expressive of a mothers love for a child. Rembrandt always had a gift for creating human expressions and gestures so universal that they still communicate effortlessly to our own time. This painting isn't strictly speaking a nativity scene and is entitled "The Holy Family", but it seemed to fit with the theme tonight. The text from Luke begins below.

1And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. 2(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

3And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.4And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)

5To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.6And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

7And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

Above is a Bouguereau which isn't a nativity scene either, but I thought it so beautiful that I included it, I also wanted to get a 19th century image in here as I have so many that are baroque. Below is a Raphael Madonna whose face shows exquisite tenderness. The painting by Raphael, sometimes called the Prince of Painters, is so lovely that the Rembrandt may be second to it. It is classical though and that is a more difficult taste for contemporary viewers. The Rembrandt is probably more approachable today. What do you think?

Below is the door to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem built over the cave where Christ is believed to have been born. Caves were used as shelter for livestock in biblical times. The church on this location dates back to 327, but the current structure was built in 565 AD, making it one of the oldest continually operating churches in the world. A text by Origen of Alexandria and early Christian scholar refers to the cave in the early 2nd century saying "In Bethlehem the cave is pointed out where He was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes. And the rumor is in those places, and among foreigners of the Faith, that indeed Jesus was born in this cave who is worshiped and reverenced by the Christians"

Tradition has it that he was born at the spot marked by a silver cross beneath the altar below.

Art from, from the top descending, Rembrandt, Georges De La Tour, Lotto, Barochi, Bouguereau, Raphael.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Adoration of the Shepherds

The Adoration of the Shepherds is described in Luke, chapter 2 and has been painted throughout our art history. I have often stressed the importance of knowing the cultural material as essential to knowing about art. The Bible has been the greatest source of painters subjects. As I did for the last Christmas I am presenting the text and the great paintings together. I think the Rembrandt is absolutely incredible, when the subject was the Bible no one excelled him. He gets the rugged textures and the earthy reality of life. The Rubens is powerful but less magical, I think. I looked at dozens of images to select these and a lot of them were baroque and just didn't communicate as well as these, not that they weren't great art, but they didn't tell the story as well, too many silk scarves and pukids flying around.

8And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,14Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

15And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.16And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.

17And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.18And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.19But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

images from

From the top to bottom; Tintoretto, Rembrandt, Rubens, Foggini, Van Honthorst, Corregio, Boucher

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Some thoughts on eye control, eye path tracking and design

image above from

James Gurney did a post not to long ago wherein he collaborated with a company that specialized in tracking viewers eye movements. Usually this is done for reasons other than the fine arts What they found was surprising. You can read James post here. There are several other posts from the same week on the site about this experiment.

They found that the viewers eye traveled across images in a way that had little or anything to do with the pathways that artists have imagined they were establishing with their designs. All of the compositional devices used through our art history and those I have espoused on this blog may be called into question by the results of eye tracking. At least in this experiment it seemed that the human eye tracked about images in a much different manner than previously supposed. When I read the post I began to mull over what all this meant.

I believe that the traditional designs do work on a viewer, but they may perhaps do so for different reasons than we have previously thought. Now, I am just positing this idea, I am not so sure I am right , but here it is anyway. (Disclaimer: next week I may think something entirely different, or perhaps not think at all)

Perhaps the design structures that we as artists build under our paintings may not lead the eye about the painting (though perhaps it does ) but it may present an attractive geometric armature that serves as decorative reinforcement to the flow of the painting. The existence of subtly expressed geometry running beneath the image itself may give a "humanness" that is a counterpoint to the randomness of nature. The existence of a mathematically ordered structure may play counterpoint with the naturalism of the artists subject. We may find our desire for order secretly pleased by the imposition of geometric rationality on the chaos of unselected nature.

I know design works, I am less sure of why it works in the light of the new information coming from eye tracking. Perhaps it is no more than a cultural agreement on what geometrical skeletal substructures should please us and which make us feel awkward.

Either way, for now I will go on using the traditional design ideas because they seem to work both in historic paintings and when I apply them to my own work. But it is interesting to think that they may be cultural conventions and not actually scientifically justified.