Exhibition: Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of the Landscape


If you went to the Royal Academy's current exhibition of three of the great British landscape painters, I'd forgive you for thinking it was a bit of a snoozefest. I'm not usually one to badmouth the RA (their Degas exhibition last year was one of the best I've seen) but it takes something of a genius to jazz up a landscape exhibition.

So the current Constable, Gainsborough, Turner show at the RA falls a little flat for those who aren't already well-acquainted with the artists' talents. These three artists pulled landscapes into popularity by employing interesting themes. Constable's depiction of people is the theme that intrigues me most.

Here's a website with a couple of Constable's landscapes. If you look at the (few and far between) people he painted, they're always the labouring poor. No nobility, no gentry. Consider his own political leanings: he held old tory values and attributed England's social and economic stability to a flourishing agriculture. There's a social comment there.

There's a lot of talk about why his figures are so commonly indistinctive. Personally, I think a reluctance to give a figure personality, individualism or definition in any artwork is a sign that the artist is using a lone figure to represent an entire group. In this case, the indistinctive labourer is a symbol for the necessity of hard work on the physical soils of England for the benefit of the country's social, economic and political standing.



There's a lot more to landscapes than some guy who's pretty good with a paintbrush looking out of his window and painting the first thing he sees. Exhibitions like John Martin: Apocalypse (see above) at Tate Britain in 2011 prove this well; it's just a shame that Constable, whose landscapes have interestingly nationalist connotations when considered in light of himself, comes across as, well, a bit dull at the RA. Call me basic, but I like a good old blockbuster landscape to liven up an otherwise quiet exhibition.



Psst... Constable's most prominent work is The Hay Wain (read a bite-sized article on it here) and can be seen at the National Gallery, for those of you who want to see his work the way it should be hung :)

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