The delay seems to have marked John Constable’s career from the start. Despite the proximity of their ages, his great rival JMW Turner had already exhibited his first oil painting in 1796 at the Royal Academy of Arts (RA), while Constable had not yet entered the RA schools. And it wasn’t until 1829, when Constable was 52, that he was elected full-fledged academician. RA’s first monographic exhibition on the artist and the first dedicated to this precise period, even The late police officer– as RA President Rebecca Salter noted in her foreword to this publication – is “just as late”.
“Early” and “late” in relation to artists are familiar concepts. But as Anne Lyles, a former Tate Constable scholar observes in her excellent introductory essay, identifying the starting point of an artist’s late period can be problematic, even arbitrary: is it simply a question of a question of age and death, or specific evolutions and changes in style, media or subject? Or all of the above?
With The late gendarme, the chosen start date is The leaping horse from 1825, the last of the six foot scenes from the Suffolk River (central to Lyles’ exhibition and catalog Gendarme: The great landscapes, Tate 2006) and ended in 1837 with Constable’s unexpected death at the age of 60. Meanwhile, as Lyles argues, Constable has radically departed from the topographical precision and “truth about nature” that characterized his early work, to a synthetic form of image making. At the same time, Constable diversified his production and subjects, such as ambitious coastal scenes, Chains Pier, Brighton (1827, Tate) and Hadleigh Castle (1829, Yale Center for British Art), and the modern historical subject of Opening of the Waterloo Bridge (1832, Tate). As Matthew Hargraves explains in the second essay, he also put more emphasis on the medium of watercolor, including ambitious exhibition works, while relying on printmaking as a way to promote his art. . And in tandem with his RA status, he experienced new and overt connections with the old masters.
“Constable’s brushstroke is arguably the most exciting and radical aspect of his late style”
Strangely enough, as Constable’s subject evolved into the conservative and conventional — the “picturesque” of The cornfield (1826, National Gallery), suspicious, as the artist puts it, of “eye ointment” and of the “sublime” of Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831, Tate) – his style and technique have become more and more expressive and therefore unconventional: indeed, Constable’s brushstroke is arguably the most exciting aspect and (in terms of the history of l ‘art) radical in its late style, with dynamic manipulation deliberately deployed, citing Lyles, as “a substitute for the movement and flow of nature”. While this gives the impression of an artist burning with determination and conviction, perhaps unsurprisingly, it seems that the more experimental he was, the more unable he was to leave paintings much alone. This reputation for overworked canvases later in life may inevitably lead us to the now famous “showdown” between Constable and Turner at the annual RA Exhibition of 1832, which comes to life evocatively in Mike’s film. Leigh. Mr. Turner (2014).
At the same time, Constable’s work became intensely forged from the mid-1820s after the death of his close friend Dr John Fisher, his mentor George Beaumont, and then, more devastatingly, his beloved wife Maria in 1828. Thus, mortality and commemoration are major themes in The late gendarme, with The cenotaph (1836, National Gallery) a memorial in Beaumont, alongside the first RA president Joshua Reynolds and, as fate would have it, Constable, too.
• Anne Lyles and Matthew Hargraves with contributions from Annette Wickham and Mark Pomeroy, The late police officer, Royal Academy of Arts, 144 pages, 100 color illustrations, £ 21.95 (hb), published October 13
• The late police officer, The Royal Academy of Arts, London, until February 13, 2022
• Christine riding is Head of the Department of Conservation and Curator of British Paintings at the National Gallery in London. She was principal curator and author of Turner and the sea (Royal Museums Greenwich / Thames & Hudson 2013) and is the curator of the upcoming Kehinde Wiley: The Prelude and Gainsborough’s Blue Boy exhibitions at the National Gallery