Saturday, 10 January 2009

Gainsborough vs Constable

I visited the National Gallery again to take a good look at the sixteenth and seventeenth century Italian works there. Once I'd done with these - I'll be writing a podtour up in due course - I decided to move along and try to overcome one of my long-term, irrational loathings - Constable.

Now you have to understand that I really ought to like Constable. I'm a Norfolk girl, and I keep being told that Constable is the great artist of the East Anglian landscape.

So: The Hay Wain. (Yes, I know Flatford is on the Essex/Suffolk border and not in Norfolk.)  I looked at it for a good fifteen minutes. And I still hate it.

I just can't get on with Constable's use of paint. He seems to think it's some kind of chocolate sauce or treacle, daubing it all over the canvas. You could read the painting like braille. The heavy white highlights on the water, to me, look like knobs of white paint or putty, not like light on a stream. It just looks muddy. I actually feel less well disposed to the painting now that I've seen it in the flesh than I did before; the churned up surface prevents me actually looking at the subject.

Dispirited, I wandered round the corner and found myself amazed by the luminous poise of Gainsborough's Mr and Mrs Andrews. What a gorgeous painting this is! There's a real sense of space; the sitters are on the left, and to the right we see their fields extending into the distance. In the first field, sheaves are neatly stacked; there's a white gate at the end of the field, and beyond this, sheep grazing. This is a working landscape, just like Constable's.

But what I love is the play of light. On Mrs Andrews's satin dress - which is plain, compared to the dresses of many of Gainsborough's other sitters, but on which the play of light makes up for the plainness of the cut. On the tree trunks. On Mr Andrews's rumpled jacket.

And Gainsborough doesn't beautify this remarkably plain couple, with their sulky faces and almost insolently relaxed posture.  There's a storm coming over, too, giving a strangely ruthless edge to the light. But it's not a menacing painting; the slight sense of menace just offsets the poise and elegance.

I've always been told Constable is the greater painter (that may reflect an out of date appreciation, but that's what my art teachers always said). Yet out of these two paintings, the Gainsborough is the one that does it for me.

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