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England through the eyes of a lover

Constable's rendering of country's beauty and its industrious people shines through at Huntington.

February 06, 2007|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

The dramatic turning point in Stephen Frears' Oscar-nominated movie, "The Queen," comes when Elizabeth II, stranded by her broken-down Land Rover in the ruggedly beautiful backcountry of her vast Scottish estate, is awaiting rescue. Anxiety rising as dusk approaches, she spies on a nearby ridge a magnificent stag, thought to have been killed by a pack of sporting hunters.

The majestic animal's imposing 12-point antlers are as regal as any sovereign's jewel-encrusted crown. Daylight might be dimming, but soon we witness the dawning of Elizabeth's determination to likewise survive in the face of a crushing royal crisis.

The rustic motif comes straight from the paintings of 19th century British Romantic painter John Constable. Nature constructed as an enduring historical emblem of English industriousness, divine advantage and instinctive grit was Constable's calling card. The artist virtually invented the now-familiar perspective, which permeates a remarkable and engaging new exhibition of his work at the Huntington Library's Boone Gallery.

"Constable's Great Landscapes: The Six-Foot Paintings" focuses on the pictures he made out of a determined effort to be accepted into the ranks of the Royal Academy -- and to do it on terms that had never been attempted. The show trumpets a level of ambition that can gently rock a viewer back on his heels.

These half-dozen large-scale works were the ones on which the artist built his hard-won reputation between 1819 and his induction as an associate academy member in 1826. They are reunited -- for the first time -- with the six monumental oil sketches on which the finished paintings were based.

To demonstrate their lasting influence, three later pairs of 6-footers are also included, among them a famous storm-tossed picture of Salisbury Cathedral beneath a protective rainbow. (There will always be a Church of England, the 1831 extravaganza proclaims.) Handsomely installed on brick-red walls, and joined by about 40 additional paintings, drawings, oil sketches and prints, the show provides an essential primer on the virtual creation of a national mythology.

Constable was born in Suffolk in 1776, the son of a prosperous miller, merchant and gentleman farmer. Though he studied at London's Royal Academy Schools, he established his studio back in rural Suffolk and shuttled between town and country for most of his working life. (He died at 60 in 1837.) In the forests, farms, villages and mills along the Stour River, Constable sketched outdoors from nature, in pencil and in oils.

Eventually he began to cobble together these fragmentary views, assembling the imagery over the course of many years into oil sketches the size of monumental landscape paintings -- 6 feet wide and 4 to 5 feet high. His aim was unambiguous: Constable wanted to give landscape painting the artistic stature already afforded to history painting, which Europe's academies considered the highest form of art. Borrowing the large size common to history painting for a view of a working boathouse by a river or of fishermen near a mill was one way to start.

Personal showmanship was involved too. In the tightly packed competitive jumble of the academy's annual Salon, the large size would make Constable's work stand out.

Scale -- or the relationship between the size of the painting and of the person looking at it -- was another important device. Horizontal, Constable's 6-footers are just wider than a viewer's outstretched arms. The slightly larger-than-life scale means a person's concentrated gaze can't encompass the picture.

There's a difference between being big and being monumental. Monumentality carries with it an inference of historic consequence. Constable played that difference like a virtuoso.

In the show's pairings, you can watch him adjust the composition from the brushy, atmospheric sketch to the highly finished painting that would be sent to the Salon. Often it's a matter of editing out things. A figure on horseback disappears from "The Hay Wain" (1821), while tangled shore plants vanish from the foreground of "The White Horse" (1819).

Sometimes Constable adds to the composition to balance it or direct the visual narrative your eye likely will follow. (He was well versed in ongoing debates about what made a landscape painting picturesque.) In the Huntington's 6-footer, "View on the Stour Near Dedham" (1822), a fallen tree trunk on the riverbank and a man in a rowboat have been edited out from the adjacent sketch. But a hulking barge and a rowboat at the right have been added.

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