The Romantic art rebel comes in for thoughtful biographical treatment at the hands of New Yorker alumnus Bailey.
It took the French to make John Constable (1776–1836) English. Which is to say, as Bailey notes, Constable worked for much of his life largely unrecognized, painting idyllic English pastoral landscapes that were dismissed as, well, mere landscapes. “But then,” writes Bailey, “the French took him up—gold medals were bestowed—and the London art world slowly opened its eyes to what he was up to.” Part of the trouble may have been that Constable, who grew up in the countryside and knew his farm equipment, painted landscapes with windmills that look as if the wind could actually turn them, something much too tame for the wild-eyed aesthetic of the Coleridge and Keats school. Constable also seems to have lacked a little of the tireless self-promotional gene that made his contemporaries and sometime rivals such as J.M.W. Turner so successful. For Constable, the kingdom of home and family was enough, and even though he did work and lobby endlessly to get into the Royal Academy, there is some suggestion that he preferred idling in the sticks to the social swirl. Bailey offers persuasive readings of Constable’s work, which includes well-known paintings such as The Hay Wain and Salisbury Cathedral; many landscapes, he finds, are so alive that a viewer, like the painter, “could smell the mud and slime on the banks,” even if some were dashed off, even incomplete. Well into his career, Constable paid to have his portfolio, English Landscape, printed, but he wound up poorer and not much better known; just after his death, some of the works that are most famous today sold at auction for a few pounds. Yet, “despite the less than dramatic prices,” the sale sent many hitherto unknown Constables out into the world.
And so it is that Constable is known today, though this literate and lively biography adds new shades to the artist’s well-earned reputation.