A finely curated exploration of the progressive landscape paintings of John Constable (1776-1837) and J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851).
In this rhapsodic investigation, Plumly (English/Univ. of Maryland; Against Sunset: Poems, 2016, etc.) positions these two master painters on a threshold in art history. Both Constable and Turner found that landscapes could mean more than simply their geography. Constable’s work was imbued with autobiography and English history, while Turner looked forward, toward what may come when the storms pass and the clouds clear. “Constable’s genius,” Plumly explains, “invites a vision of what was…and Turner’s genius demands a vision of what will be.” Each artist found a way to incorporate narrative into their pastoral scenes, transcending traditional Arcadian visions into something more compelling and personally resonant. “The subtext of narrative is time,” writes the author, “the subtext of time is emotion, the subtext of emotion, therefore, is mortality.” Citing critics from John Ruskin to John Berger, Plumly chronicles Constable’s and Turner’s output as well as reception, detailing exhibitions at the Royal Academy and reactions from collectors across Europe. As a poet, the author is a particularly effective art historian, capable of re-creating these sublime masterpieces with his inspired prose. Constable’s Stour Valley paintings are “indelible narratives of lost time,” while Turner’s circular brushwork is “made alive” by a “unique combustion of colors, as if the color wheel is being turned and converted into the blended hues and shades of nature.” The author resists a traditional chronology, opting instead for a Turner-like vortex around major works by each artist and a particular idea. Some chapters focus on the artists’ work with clouds and sky, some invoke Keats and Tennyson, and others touch on the artists’ relations to groups like the pre-Raphaelites or the impressionists. This is a fresh way to curate these works for those familiar with Turner and Constable, but newcomers will find themselves yearning for a more biographical approach.
A polyphonic, scholarly study of two of art history’s most important figures.