Getting It Right

John Haber
in New York City

John Constable: Salisbury Cathedral

True to life, true to nature, truer still to the imagination—the litany by now stands for the creative artist. Did you forget who first droned out, "to thine own self be true"? (Hint: Hamlet made fun of him.)

So what is John Constable doing with a full-scale oil sketch? Why, there it sits, right across an oh so comfortable fireplace from the finished painting. So much for the plain, spontaneous, literally unvarnished truth, right? What happened to Romanticism's most unaffected artist? John Constable's Salisbury Cathedral (Frick Collection, photo by Richard di Liberto, New York, 1826)

Falling in love again

The Frick Collection makes for that rare chance to find out. It brings Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Garden together with Constable's version from the Met. Along with The White Horse—the Frick's second, perhaps more famous Constable a room away—it allows a peek at a great artist at work.

The Frick's gathering sits as just one of three current exhibitions. They include drawings by Watteau and others. Six portraits by Velázquez gather all but one of his works in New York City collections.

Shows last year of medieval prints and Edouard Manet made it hard to keep up already. The museum's bustle of excitement adds more to the art scene than any institution I can name.

And so the pair of Constables. Really? Surely his generation changed the very process of painting and its relation to its subject. Surely Romanticism anticipated Impressionism, taking art from the gradual refinement of first sketches to a record of immediate impressions. An artist's eye alone determined reality.

In an age of pop culture and Postmodernism, everyone of course wants to make fun of all that, at least when it comes to the arts. Maybe make that everyone not lining up in front of me for Claude Monet and Jackson Pollock. Even so, one still accepts individual truth as a cornerstone of Romanticism and modernity. Postmodernists agree. We want only to free art from the burden of myth.

Do we get it right? A look at John Constable shows an artist eager to please his patron and yet dissatisfied with myth. It shows a cathedral's grounds as tourist attraction and Romantic garden. It offers up insights into Romanticism's new ideals coming to be, plus the opportunity to fall in love with a landscape all over again.

To thine own selves be true

John Constable in fact made a practice not just of preliminary sketches, but of full-scale drafts in oil. Already the fourth meticulously reworked study, this one, completed in 1825, shows Constable trying his best to please a patron. There he goes, adding the bishop to a commanding spot in the foreground. The old fellow raises his cane to point out the cathedral's wonders. He, and not the artist, takes final responsibility for explicating the works of man and nature.

There Constable goes, too, altering the sky again, to reassure his patron. The bishop may have hired the landscape artist for skill in capturing passing clouds. Still, the patron found what he saw way too gloomy for a gentleman's real estate outside a properly Romantic interior. The finished painting, the following year, opens up the trees to let in a sunlit sky. Ironically, when Constable was done, the bishop had died. The tribute to property and good taste had taken on new meaning thanks to a cornerstone of Romanticism to come—the swift passage of time.

In the same way, changes from sketch to sketch look both backward, to older academic assumptions, and ahead—to a full-blown Romanticism. In part, I can point simply to a moment in art's history. With his clouds and trees, Constable had discovered a fresh handling of color, like Romanticism in France, where the art's battles always aimed at a larger public. the separate attention to individual objects in a landscape, and the market value of his impressions. His open-air sketches were bringing him fame.

Before long, from the sequence of drafts over time, one moves to a series of works, as in the J. M. W. Turner bequest at the Tate. One can almost foresee a Pollock known simply by number. From a sequence in time, one also turns to traces of development within a single canvas. Again as in modern art's formalism, from layers of transparent oils, one turns to opaque surface layers, the traces of many distinct experiences. Paradoxically, attention to individual truths turns into the multiplicity of an artist's persona.

In older doctrine, nature functions as a way station toward the higher truth revealed only to mankind. Contrary to cliché, this already elevates inner experience. However, the imagination passively accepts the imprint of God and nature, even as humanity occupies the center of Poussin's landscapes. For John Milton in his blindness, "light denied," the poet "only stands and waits." A brief excursion into poetry will suggest how Constable's art has to stop waiting for the clouds to clear. It must become true to all his selves.

I see the changes from draft to draft as one step in Constable's own inward turn. I want to see how the changes allow him to seek out a changed relationship to himself and nature. If the patron enters into his search, fine with him.

The active listener

Romanticism still speaks of two poles of experience, nature and the imagination. However, they start to intertwine, like the branches in Constable's sturdy tree or equally gorgeous, perfectly observed tree roots by Caspar David Friedrich in Germany, as bearers of truth in opposition to doctrine. The secret is that both become active powers. The artist will carry within him not just the marks of experience, but a layered, active mind inseparable from others and the world. That world, too, will turn out to contain bitter lessons—about the divisions men can create within their society.

In the preface to Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth terms himself "a man speaking to men." He has to describe nature as it is, but with "a certain coloring of the imagination." When the imagination simply takes an imprint, it has died, no matter how immersed in nature.

"The world is too much with us," his sonnet states. The world has not had to depart for man to be out of touch. Rather, it presents a surfeit, while "we lay waste" to ourselves. He sees nature and knows the lea is "pleasant," but little in it is "ours." God himself can hardly help, for the poet looks longingly not to Christianity, but to paganism—only to find "a creed outworn."

To recover nature for poetry and society means humanizing it. In that sense, a Romantic would argue, one indeed must be true to oneself. Then again, Polonius can get a few things right. Fathers and other comic figures sometimes do.

Nature and society alike depend on humanity to flourish. That takes something other than "getting and spending." If here Wordsworth sounds a bit like Karl Marx, he simply anticipates another great Romantic. "Tintern Abbey" puts the point this way:

. . . For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity.

Art depends on one moment, that still moment of active listening. It can mean the immensity of a single experience, such as Wordsworth's view of Mount Snowdon in "The Prelude"—or Turner's and Constable's encounters with the sublime. For Wordsworth, the poles of experience take a touch of polar ice. For Constable, it takes an extra canvas.

Constable's changes between full-size oils have the same goal as Wordsworth's: they humanize nature in the face of its vastness. Certainly, Constable looks back to the traditions of proper fine art and to such earlier students of nature and culture as George Stubbs. His brand of Romanticism still seeks something polished enough to stand firmly at one remove from nature. However, something else has taken place, something beyond art's traditional role. The artist cannot wait for the sky to clear. He has to respond to its call.

People, places, and things

As Constable firms up the details, one notices first nature's immensity. He has taken greater care with scale. As the sky opens, the foreground tree no longer overwhelms the cathedral. A contrast of light and shadow emerges more strongly in the open field, heightening a perspective line in the row of cows. This step locates painting's subject in its furthest point, like the distant promise of salvation in Théodore Géricault's Raft of the Medusa. Nature's sublimity starts to talk, and the artist responds with care.

Constable also adds one easily overlooked detail. Tiny people parade past the cathedral, almost like Impressionism's tongue-lickings. (Can one think of a Turner without people implied in it?) By contrast, the visitors make the building look bigger, that sense of scale again. Indeed, to my eye they look way too small. They exaggerate nature, again evoking the sublime.

The people also stress the transient in nature. Just as they come and go, so do time and the seasons. Constable's greatest achievement, the clouds, may have lightened, but they also get much more emphasis in the final work. I once wrote that he handles clouds like portraits of dear, departed friends. Even when he alters them to suit another, he draws on a rich album compiled through long and loving experience.

Meanwhile, just as the changes highlight nature's call, they humanize the subject. With the final version, Salisbury cathedral becomes not nature in isolation, but a work of architecture and a center of rural life. A survey of modern art calls itself "People, Places, and Things." Here all play a role.

The tiny people certainly help. They humanize the subject, by associating it with human culture and the weekend traffic. They belong to enormous changes in the English countryside, as the first signs of urban sprawl. The nation's population suddenly exploded, growing sevenfold in just seventy years. Cities became darker. Weekend excursions provided not only relief, but loss of the old split between urban life and remote, rural estates.

Most of all, nature and man reach out to one another, like the bishop's cane pointing to the cathedral and the sky. He and his wife stand in the foreground, amid the darker, apparently more natural setting. The new style's rich surface looks forward to what modernists would call "flatness." The cathedral can therefore stand as just one more vertical amid four trees. As Susan Grace Galassi notes in her curator's brochure, a branch in turn bends over to touch the structure. Together, nature and the imagination have reached to the sky.

Reality bites

How wide-ranging a concept is realism. Even in this century, it can mean so many things. I do not see it as killed by abstraction or photography, but rather as given life along with abstraction from a creative confrontation with photographs.

Of course, the concept of mirroring nature goes back a long way. Time and again, one encounters the fable of birds pecking at a master's drawing. Time and again, too, one finds play with represented mirrors, long before Jacques Lacan or Michel Foucault took mirrors as metaphor for consciousness. Traditionally, however, realism served mostly as a tool to other ends. Art elevated something other than landscape or still life to the status of the highest genre.

Fine art demanded a representation of something one can never see—from human history to ideals far beyond nature. Giotto supposedly proved his greatness just by drawing a circle, and then he went back to representing God. To state the obvious bluntly, however, realism takes not just skill but artifice, because it cannot look to nature's eternal truth. In fact, today it often means one nineteenth-century arts movement among others, the movement born with Gustave Courbet and his desire for things.

Art as a mirror of nature—it too has a coloring of dogma. It had begun to stand as an end in itself when, for the first and last time, eighteenth-century doctrine codified the idea. Salisbury Cathedral shows how deeply Romanticism in turn modified doctrine—and became caught up in its limits.

For Constable, the painter and patron of course remain male, and nature stays colored by the female. Wordsworth would rather be "suckled" by paganism, the bishop addresses his eager wife, and cows set Constable's natural perspective. Before long, though, a man's labor becomes a value within nature, not just a fearful aspect of modern life. Instead of the "dark satanic mills" that drove Constable's tiny figures to an idealized Salisbury, one gets Courbet's stone breakers.

The century will shatter any recourse from social pressures to the creative imagination. With that emotional breakdown will come challenges to old roles. I include a woman's exclusion from humanity, not to mention the landed gentry's ability to stand apart, watching an average guy touring his cathedral town.

Modernism and Postmodernism alike lose some of the optimism implied in the creative imagination. Modernism shouts in terror, and its play with realism persists as one last joyous, tormented protest. Postmodernism makes the human separation from nature total, just as every perception comes to seem a construct of ideology and the inner world. John Constable's glorious cathedral may look ahead to the changes, but it makes the imagination come alive again.

BACK to John's arts home page

Two full-scale versions of Salisbury Cathedral remained on view at The Frick Collection through December 31, 1999. A related review looks at John Constable's sketches.


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