John Constable: Sketch for A Boat Passing a Lock
John Constable (1776 –1837) was a well-known English painter who achieved great success and recognition by the Royal Academy for the large landscape paintings in his depiction of the Stour Valley. Constable’s exhibition between 1819 and 1925 redefined his position as a remarkable painter whose naturalistic style of landscape suited to the humble rural subjects that he chose to represent in his artistic paintings. Although Constable’s “finish” was largely criticized to represent mere roughness and generalized aspects because of his unsystematic handling style, his painting of A Boat Passing a Lock remains one of the most celebrated masterpieces of the 19th century.
Constable’s work represents an ambiguous dualism of both romantic and naturalistic tendencies. His naturalistic style as depicted in the Lock provided a new public discourse about landscape painting and its function in culture and art in relation to the private experience of nature. A Lock is one of Constable’s portraiture of nature, which combines the effects of sparkling sunlight and color in nature. According to critics, Constable’s naturalistic style seemed inappropriate and hence failed to meet the traditional Academic preconceptions of what was ideal to the field of rustic landscape. During the 1820s, his work remained both culturally illegible and responsive at the same time. In his painting of A Boat Passing a Lock, Constable combines both the naturalistic and romantic aspects to develop a picture combining both signs of nature and of human nature. It is through this harmonious mix that Constable was able to develop his sketch–like finished painting to embody a more pragmatic meaning. Constable sought to develop a universal language of the heart where poetry and art combines to communicate the value of shared humanity and the very essence to retain naturalism. Therefore, his ideological assumptions as depicted in the A Boat Passing a Lock painting proved a turning point in shaping the position of Constable’s work in the history of art, and its significance as a product and index of culture in its own critical consciousness.
One of the principle aspects in Constable’s paintings is how he mediates his own direct experience of nature with his own ideas to develop a transparent relationship between nature, art, and culture. Constable sought to develop the role of landscape painting as mediating real nature through a painting style that assumed freshness and knowledge of nature. The sketch of A Boat Passing a Lock represents a large canvas in a horizontal composition, showing extended scene to the right and varying action. In the portrait, the image of a boat with a sail can be seen waiting at Flatford Lock, a docking point on the River Stour. The boat is tight to a wooden post while the lock keeper tries to open the gates in order to allow it to fitthe lock chamber. This is to provide adequate space for lifting the boat to the higher water level prior to making its journey up the River Stour.
In addition, Constable also creates an open composition, a further lock gate, and a barge in the background on the far right. Furthermore, Constable depicted the possibility of a heavy rainstorm on the left side, making him create the Flatford Bridge. Furthermore, the inclusion of a dog on the foreground at the right depicts an aspect of humanism and the very essence of nature as an integral part of the painting as an art. It is through his commitment to the purity of the undiluted nature, which enabled Constable to maintain a consistent theme and naturalistic style -responsible for the course of his artistic development in the early 19th century.
Another aspect in Constable’s work is clarity. Several scholars have noted that Constable’s work surpassed the cultural expectations on the externalization of meaning and emotion in art based on how he combined natural incidents in landscape scenery with a more personal response to nature and artistic presence. His paintings have been described to depict a more general control and to unify artistic ideas, which could be understood both as naturalistic effect and as personal expression (Pugh p.117). For instance, in the A Boat Passing a Lock painting, Constable creates the Sky as both the “source of all light” in his landscape paintings as well as its principle organ of emotion or sentiment. Moving away from the coarse and sketchy brushwork, Constable began to adopt a more generalized orchestration of darks and lights as seen in the painting of A Boat Passing a Lock among other subsequent paintings.
This enabled him to employ a highly diverse and complex painting technique that largely focused on exploring specific objects and their individualized appearances and textures. For instance, a closer look at the Lock will reveal Constable’s struggle to mimic the actual surfaces of natural objects including rocks, grasses, trees, leaves, houses, rivers. It is through this technique that it becomes easier for Constable to create a more generalized painting, which subsumes such individualized descriptions in the finish. For instance, unlike his painting of a Boat Passing a Lock, which could be deemed more consistent, Constable’s finish of 1810–20 were highly criticized because of the less systematic approach he applied in creating them. This made his paintings appear more transparent, and less rough―something cited to limit the existing naturalistic illusion of transparency between the viewer and the artistic object.
Apart from its naturalistic style, Constable’s painting also assumes a naturalistic language. Scholars have argued that this naturalistic language influences the ideological implications of his paintings even many years after his death. According to Constable, the private experiences and interactions people have with nature are universally shared and hence establish the starting point of public discourse. In this perspective, it is clear that Constable sought to promote the search for an elaborate, transparent relationship between nature and art, and between art and emotion. While this combination may seem awkward, Constable was determined to establish the significance of landscape painting in mediating the experiences of art and nature through a style viewed to be outside the traditional academic preconceptions of what qualified as rustic landscape in the early nineteenth century.
His capacity to break a clear balance between the constative and performative aspects of his naturalistic style helped him to reduce the disparity existing between real landscape and its representation. A Boat Passing a Lock remains one of Constable’s greatest works, which assumed both artistic freshness and knowledge of nature. This rich combination of nature, culture, and art allowed Constable to create a masterpiece, which not only revolutionized the naturalistic style, but has also become Constable’s most popular artistic piece up to that time.
Pugh, Simon. Reading Landscape: Country, City, and Capital. Manchester: Manchester
University Press, 1990.