By Deborah Walden, Education Editor
Nashville Arts Magazine enjoyed the Frist Center’s press preview of Constable: Oil Sketches from the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was the highlight of our day. Dr. Mark Evans, Chief Curator of the Paintings at the Victoria and Albert Museum, led us all on a tour of the exhibit. Because it is comprised of oil sketches made in preparation for finished paintings, the show demonstrates the nineteenth-century painter’s working process. You can see how he responded to atmospheric conditions, how he changed the content of his paintings between the sketches and the final works and how he combined elements of his preparatory works to inform finished paintings. You follow Constable’s brush from his rough sketches as a young man to the studies he made in the last years of his life.
I have long been an admirer of Constable’s sketches. I have shown them to my students in class and waxed poetic about them more than once to friends and family. I had never seen so many in person, though. My colleague Sara and I were blown away by the photographic qualities of some works and the near-abstract expressionist feel of others. The sketches range from brightly colored, shimmering oils that abound in naturalistic details to rugged, patchy layers of pigment. I felt totally immersed in Constable’s world, aided by Evans’ insight. The curator is a world-renowned expert on Constable’s paintings. He brought in biographical elements from the artist’s life, gleaned from letters and documents from Constable’s time. Evans also helped orient the crowd in terms of each painting he discussed. While describing an idyllic scene of rolling English hills, Evans reminded us that London’s industrial sprawl would be just behind the viewer in the original setting of the painting. In some sketches, dark black clouds hovered above glowing sunsets or daily scenes of country living. Evans pointed out that these “clouds” were actually smoke from pollutants or other man-made sources. It made the paintings seem even more real to me. Constable’s retreat to the country for a source in his work made me think of the polluted industrial world of nineteenth-century London. It brought to mind Edward Burtynsky’s Industrial Sublime downstairs at The Frist.
When we talk about Constable, we often think of him as a pioneer of things to come. The emotion, immediacy and affinity for nature that shines through in each painting seems more connected to art movements, like Impressionism, that dominate later decades of the nineteenth century. This morning, I was struck by Constable’s ability to reach today’s audience. In terms of our technology, we live in a different world from the iconic artist, but his visions of nature and his palpable impressions of his daily life are still very much alive to us.