Monday, August 30, 2010

Constable's Clouds Redux & Big Dutch Skies

Here's an exciting Constable landscape that, if walked through carefully, will reveal a number of its secrets quite readily.

The name of this painting is Harwich Lighthouse, and Constable painted it around 1820 (same time as the cloud sketches in the previous post). It's from that Australian Web exhibit I told you about, and you can see their page on it here. See how he confines the sunlight to the middle ground? When you realize that the foreground shadow is from a passing cloud, you get that the lighthouse and the little fellow walking along the path are just there for scale, and this whole painting is really just an excuse to paint the sky!

The relatively few fans Constable garnered in his lifetime were blown away by the sense of place in this and other paintings, that is, by his fidelity to nature and the downright Englishness of his English countrysides. He's beloved by his nation today because ultimately his work woke up the English to the beauty and poetry of their own country.

But his early admirers also recognized in his work a then-fashionable nod to Dutch Old Master landscape painting. The Dutch were the first to establish a tradition of "pure" landscape - depictions of natural scenery free from narrative content, often with little or no human presence.

Above is a painting by Willem van de Velde the Elder (1611-1663) that to me feels similar to Constable's lighthouse painting. In both paintings, a few relatively small vertical shapes project above the horizon, which immediately gives way to the big sky and clouds. Both paintings show us objects getting smaller as they recede in space, drawing our eyes into the painting and toward that luminous line between earth (or water) and sky. Speaking of perspective, look back at the lighthouse at the top of the page. Note where your eye travels as you look at it. The coastal path takes us to the ostensible point of interest, the lighthouse, and then jags right and shoots our gaze along the line of light, right to the little ramp of land jutting up like a runway into the big wide sky, which is where Constable secretly wanted to launch our attention all along.

And this is another Dutch Old Master with a coastal (rather than marine) subject matter. As you can see, giving over two-thirds of the canvas to the sky is "very Dutch." It's clear that Constable wasn't the first to be fascinated by the dynamism of nature. Have a look at this Rembrandt, now.

Rembrandt uses what's today known as an "Old Master palette," which means it's limited to earth tones, black, and white. Though he learned a ton from the Dutch painters about painting landscapes, Constable discarded the Old Master palette, as did the Impressionists who admired Constable's work for its freshness.

Each of these paintings gives us a great sense of the vastness of sky and the beauty and volatility of the natural world we inhabit. We'll be revisiting the Old Masters many times in posts to come.


  1. 'Harwich Lighthouse' is really full of freshness. That small guy and lighthouse perfectly supplement beautiful massive cloudy sky. Love it!

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