Constable – The Haywain

Like Van Eyck’s, Constable’s art is one of quiet realism and solid, unostentatious craftsmanship. He succeeds in expressing the distinctive aspects of the English countryside, with all their associations of home and tranquillity. In so far as he pleases the eye directly, he does so by a peculiar diffused richness of color and light, rather than by any definite pattern. He follows the seventeenth century Dutch landscape painters in their formal, casual arrangements, emphasizing the freedom and easy, relaxed profusion of nature instead of reorganizing a scene into some artificially rhythmic design. What repetitions of shape do appear, such as those between the fluffy masses of clouds and trees, are never exact or conspicuous.

Yet the composition is not haphazard, a mere photograph at random. One can best realize this by trying to imagine what would happen to the picture if various objects were shifted or omitted. A dog, a wagon, a house, a row of bushes, a plain and a row of trees—each is placed with care, to lead the eye by a series of light-accents into and around the scene, and to fill space adequately without confusion.

His most distinctive contribution is in color. To appreciate it, one may look at some typical Dutch landscape, such as Hobbema’s Woody Landscape (995). There the general composition is similar, and the cool, dark, oily green and brown coloring. But the texture is more monotonous, with trees of a solid uniform green, varied only by touches of a lighter shade. The Constable is far more colorful, rich and luminous, with a soft iridescence that seems to penetrate deep into the inner substance of trees, grass and soil.

By looking at Rubens’ Chateau de Steen (66) one can understand the general source of Constable’s inspiration in this regard. The luminosity and richness which Hobbema lost is present in this earlier Flemish master. But there it is produced chiefly with broad strokes, thinly overpainted in various tints, and the whole landscape is given a more dramatic flare and swirl. The Constable is more quiet and static, with less flare and more sparkle, as a result of many dots and tiny streaks of red, yellow, brown and even blue, side by side among the prevailing green. This effect of “broken color,” later developed and emphasized by Delaroix and the French impressionists, is in Constable rather subdued. He is not interested in brilliant, direct sunlight, or in bright decorative color; but in merging all parts of his landscape by soft transitions into one deep, continuous whole.