Thursday, 14 January 2016

Rivals in Art 1 - William Turner and John Constable

J M W TURNER  English painter  as a young man
J.M.W. Turner

John Constable, artist. Date: circa 1799, by Ramsay Richard Reinagle
John Constable

Although there was only one year between them, Turner the elder born in 1775 whilst Constable in 1776, there was always a case of Turner being the Old Master and Constable the young pretender.
Both men were fiercely competitive. Turner valued his place in the Georgian art world as the master, the tempestuous, often coarse genius. Many of his landscapes, indeed a great many of his paintings, were works of imagination based upon reality. He would often merge one scene taken on a sunny day with that of another featuring inclement weather to form an artistic impression. His imagination was equal to his ability to capture a likeness.

"It is necessary to mark the greater from the lesser truth: namely the larger and more liberal idea of nature from the comparatively narrow and confined; namely that which addresses itself to the imagination from that which is solely addressed to the eye."

Often the two men would paint the same subjects reinforcing their apparent rivalry. They were also both inclined to take extreme measures when researching. Turner is meant to have, although there is no proof he did, lashed himself to a ship's mast the better to sketch a seascape. Whereas Constable famously painted in the rain leaving the canvas, fresh with paint, covered in droplets of rain that remained visible after the painting was hung.

This is from a surviving memoir written in 1798....

'I recollect Turner as a plain uninteresting youth both in manners and appearance, he was very careless and slovenly in his dress, not particular what was the colour of his coat or clothes, and was anything but a nice looking young man...He would talk of nothing but his drawings, and of the places to which he should go for sketching. He seemed an uneducated youth, desirous of nothing but improvement in his art...'
Constable was a more refined, better-educated man than Turner. For many years, rivalry to one side, Constable showed only respect for his competitor.
'Turner has some golden visions, but still they are art, and one could live and die with such pictures.'
The first clash between the two men, sundering what had been, certainly from Constable's viewpoint, a sense of respect, came in 1831 when Constable had two of Turner's paintings removed from pride of place at an Academy exhibition and replaced by one of his own. This move did not best please Turner who, legend has it, flew at Constable like a ferret. The following year, 1832, Turner had his revenge.
'In 1832, when Constable exhibited his 'Opening of Waterloo Bridge', it was placed in of the small rooms at Somerset House. A sea-piece, by Turner, was next to it - a grey picture, beautiful and true, but with no positive colour in any part of it. Constable's 'Waterloo' seemed as if painted with liquid gold and silver, and Turner came several times into the room which he was heightening with vermilion and lake decoration and flags of the city barges. Turner stood behind him looking from the 'Waterloo' to his own picture, and, at last, brought his palette from the great room where he was touching another picture, and putting a daub of red lead, somewhat bigger than a shilling, on his grey sea, went away without saying a word. The intensity of the red lead, made more vivid by the coolness of his picture, caused even the vermilion and lake of Constable to look weak. I came into the room just as Turner left it. 'He has been here,' said Constable, 'and fired a gun.'...The great man did not come again into the room for a day and a half; and then, in the last moments that were allowed for painting, he glazed the scarlet seal he put on his picture and shaped it into a buoy.'

Turner won the prize leaving John Constable fuming.
Their bitter antagonism descended into a puerile state. The fact that Turner was fifteen when he was first exhibited and Constable virtually forty didn't help matters. Constable was a happily married man, Turner wasn't. They hurled insults at each other with childlike spite. Constable allegedly saying Turner's art was not worth spitting on and Turner was equally caustic in his comments regarding Constable.
For two such great artists who shared so much in common, their twin stupidity really beggars belief. Whilst previous artists had tried to capture the very likeness of the landscape both Turner and Constable sought to portray the spirit of the place.
My  personal choice between the two, a hard conclusion to arrive as I like both men's work, is Turner. His scenes depicting sailing boats fighting the elements contain a wild, violence. You hear the sound of the waves crashing, feel the salt spray stinging your face, smell the briny tang of the ocean, are appalled at the thunder that explodes above as dark clouds gather like heavenly galleons attacking the vessels below.
Constable captures the heart of the English countryside, a landscape now changing, a landmass before the Industrial world took a firm grip on nature.  Very attractive paintings too but not as menacing or as untamed as many of Turner's were.
Bitter rivals perhaps - brilliant artists both.
Constable's 'The Hay Wain' - 1821
Turner's ' Dutch Boats in a Gale' - 1801
With grateful thanks to the Turner Society for much-needed clarification.

Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

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