This month we will take a look at two of England’s most famous painters. Interestingly, they were both contemporaries (lived at the same time and both members of the Royal Academy). However, they are said to have disliked each other at least and many scholars feel that they were rivals with a heated hatred for the their fellow painter. JMW Turner and John Constable were both painters in the Romantic movement and their works highly influenced and lead to the Impressionist movement. (Which we talked about briefly last month when we learned about Cezanne.) The Romantic movement doesn’t refer to hearts and flowers and love, but to glorification. The artists of this era stood against science and cold reason which (were dominant in this time of the industrial revolution) and glorified concepts such as liberty, ideals, heroism, despair, and the various sensations that nature evokes in humans. The focus was on what we feel in an individual, highly subjective way. To get a feel for these two artists, let’s make a quick comparison:
*The two artists were said to be opposites in birth, looks and temperament.
*Both were born in southern England in mid-1770s.
*Turner remained a bachelor and lived with the father he called ‘Daddy’ into middle age.
*Constable fathered seven children and was very happily married to wife Maria Bicknell.
*Turner was just 15 when he first exhibited at the Academy, Constable was nearly 40
With all of these differences, why do we talk about them together? The rivals had something very special in common, an astonishingly vivid new way of looking at landscape. While artists of the previous generation had set out to paint the landscape with photographical accuracy, Turner and Constable wished to capture its spirit.
Turner painted tumultuous storms over harbors, blazing fires, and the smoke and steam of the new industrial age. He thrilled to weather at its wildest and most violent.
This recklessness is illustrated in an account given by a Cornish newspaper editor of a boat trip with Turner off the coast of Plymouth. While the other passengers suffered crippling sea-sickness in the ‘boisterous’ waters, Turner sat in the stern muttering admiringly: ‘That’s fine! Fine!’
Constable was intensely interested in the quality of light: the way clouds cast shadows over fields, the haze after a downpour, late afternoon sun on a riverbank. He proudly wrote of his delight in decay and neglect: ‘Old rotten banks, slimy posts and brickwork — I love such things.’
John Constable was born on June 11, 1776 in Suffolk, England. His father was a prosperous miller and corn merchant. Much like Paul Cezanne, his father hoped he would take over the family business eventually. John had an early interest in art, but was largely self taught. This made for slow development as an artist, he was middle aged before he entered the Royal Acadamy.
Constable quietly rebelled against the artistic culture that taught artists to use their imagination to compose their pictures rather than nature itself. He told Leslie, “When I sit down to make a sketch from nature, the first thing I try to do is to forget that I have ever seen a picture”. Constable is famous for his landscapes, which are mostly of the Suffolk countryside, where he was born and lived. He made many open-air sketches, using these as a basis for his large (6 ft) exhibition paintings, which were worked on in his studio. His pictures are extremely popular today, but they were not particularly well received in England during his lifetime. He did, however, have considerable success in Paris. However, he refused to leave the England he loved to exhibit there. He said he would rather be a poor painter in England than a rich one abroad. He was much studied and admired for his use of color, especially in showing the varying greens found in a landscape. He loved light and clouds and the shadows that were cast on the earth below. It is all of these elements that combine to make his paintings fresh and invigorating.
Constable married Maria Bicknell, the granddaughter of a Suffolk neighbor. He fervently believed his artistic success depended on her love. ‘All my hopes and prospects in life,’ he wrote to her, ‘are included in my attachment to you.’ They had seven children, and Constable’s friend and biographer C.R. Leslie wrote that the babies were as often in their father’s arms as their mother’s.
Joseph Mallord William Turner had a much different life. He was born in Covent Garden in London in 1775 to a father who had a wig-trimming and barber’s business, his mother suffered from mental disease and was institutionalized when Turner was a boy. He was known to be an eccentric character; preferring to be alone with his work over socializing with others. A Miss Dart, who knew Turner in his youth, described him as ‘singular and silent…mean and ungrateful…careless and slovenly in his dress…anything but a nice-looking young man.’
His father was immensely proud of his son, often boasting that his he was going to be a painter. As a young man, he produced many architectural drawings and watercolors and entered the Royal Academy as a teen. Turner travelled widely in Europe, starting with France and Switzerland in 1802 and studying in the Louvre in Paris in the same year.
As he grew older, he became more eccentric. He had few close friends except for his father, who lived with him for 30 years and worked as his studio assistant. His father’s death in 1829 had a profound effect on him and left him dealing with boughts of depression. He never married but had a relationship with an older widow, Sarah Danby. He is believed to have been the father of her two daughters born in 1801 and 1811.
As he matured, turner favored dramatic seascapes and scenes. To Turner, light was the emanation of God’s spirit and this was why he focused the subject matter of his later paintings by leaving out distractions such as solid objects and detail, concentrating on the play of light on water, the radiance of skies and fires. Although these later paintings appear to be part of the impressionist movement, Turner was striving for expression of spirituality in the world, rather than responding primarily to optical phenomena. Claude Monet carefully studied Turner, we can see in his later work the beginning of this next and very unique movement.
For our project we will be creating our own landscapes (picture of a place). We will start with pastels, roughing in where we want things and adding smaller details. Then fill in with watercolors. Try to emphasize the romantic sweeping landscapes of Constable and Turner. Show the students how to mix colors and feel free to go back in with the pastels to add in other details. (Like the whitecaps on the seascape.)