constable rainstorm
John Constable. “Rainstorm over the Sea” (c. 1824-28, Royal Academy of Arts)

Review: ‘Constable and Brighton’ shows painter at his best

BRIGHTON, England — The Beatles or The Stones? Manchester United or Manchester City? James Mallord William Turner or John Constable?

Britons are always bitterly divided about something, and for lovers of early 1800s art, that last one is a tough question. I have always come down firmly on the side of Turner, but a recent visit to “Constable and Brighton,” on display at the Brighton Art Museum, moved the two a closer in my estimation.

Don’t get me wrong, Constable has always been a large figure in English art, it’s just that Turner is a true giant, not just of English art, but in the pantheon of great artists in history. Where Turner’s greatest works have a vitality and visceral excitement, Constable’s have seemed technically impressive but not quite as moving.

However, the Brighton exhibition shows us a Constable that, through his sketches, is vibrant and has a connection to Turner’s specialty — seascapes.

After his wife, Maria, contracted tuberculosis, on medical advice, Constable moved the family to Brighton for long periods between 1824 and 1828 to help with her health.

During the four years, Constable produced 150 works in Brighton, including several commissions for the French art market, and many sketches from his walk around the town and its surrounds. “Constable and Brighton” included 60 works, including large paintings, oil sketches and drawings.

The show’s genesis began when, in 2010, artist Peter Harrap moved to Brighton, and he found he was living in the house where Constable had stayed, and painting the same attic space Constable had used as a makeshift studio. He set about researching the master’s work done during his stay on the south coast, which led to Harrap curate the show.

Constable was not enamored with the town. He wrote to archdeacon John Fisher, a close friend,  “I am living here but I dislike the place … Brighton is the receptacle of the fashion and offscouring of London. The magnificence of the sea and its (to use your beautiful expression) everlasting voice is drowned in the din & lost in the tumult of stagecoaches – gigs – flys – etc and the beach is Piccadilly (that part of it where we dined) by the seaside.”

However, Constable did enjoy his walks and he was productive. His images of the coastal English Channel, the South Downs, and the area’s working life pioneered the practice of painting from life in the open air, later adopted by the Impressionists.

John Constable. “Stormy Sea, Brighton.”

In a letter view written from Brighton in 1824, Constable wrote, “It is the business of a painter not to contend with nature and put this scene (…) on a canvas of a few inches, but to make something out of nothing, in attempting which he must almost of necessity become poetical.”

The poesy of Constable’s remarkable sketches of the sea are the highlight of the show. They are vibrant and full of energy, best typified by “Rainstorm Over the Sea,” a truly magnificent wash sketch that captures the full force of nature. Seascapes were the province of his rival Turner, with Constable known for his pastoral scenes. However, the seascapes in the exhibition, especially the sketches, capture the scale of the scene and one can almost feel the strong breezes blowing the salt water mist inland. “Rainstorm Over the Sea” is almost abstract and Constable doesn’t not try to hide the brushstrokes. The piece is only 9 inches by 12 inches, yet, in boxing parlance, it really packs a punch.

Of course, Brighton is where I grew up. I have looked out from the land to watch the dark clouds raging in the distance. You will, I hope, forgive me a nostalgic connection, which goes beyond the academic.

A more detailed painting is “Stormy Sea, Brighton,” from 1828, which depicts a storm in more detail. It is also a wonderful piece, without quite the vibrancy of the former, but magnificent nonetheless.

While there are large painting in the show, it is the small studies that are the most impressive. In such small images, Constable conjures up nature at its most impressive, full of power, sound and fury, in this case, signifying a mastery of his craft.

John Constable. “Hove Beach”

These “impressions” of the sea pre-date the Impressionists who adopted the model of painting in the open air. In “Hove Beach,” a small oil on board depicting a sunset, one can sense the oncoming Impressionists. Constable’s work had a good reputation in the French art market, and while it is a stretch, maybe, to say he directly influenced the younger artists, this piece certainly would not look out place in an Impressionist exhibition.

Chain Pier, Brighton 1826-7 by John Constable 1776-1837
John Constable. “The Chain Pier”

Constable also gives us marvelous sketches of workers plying their trade, and a wonderful image of the Chain Pier, a legendary structure that was blown away in a storm in 1896.

In the wonderful movie “Mr. Turner,” Constable’s rival was portrayed — accurately if one is to believe history — as a crusty and cantankerous. Turner was also in Brighton in 1824, and was, maybe, jealous of Constable’s encroachment on his specialty, saying, “What does he know of boats?”

The reality is that Constable is ill-served by his reputation in England as a painter of oh-so-British pastorals (“The Hay Wain” is reproduced on coasters, posters, and sundry other knick-knacks). “Constable and Brighton” shows an artist that is insightful and expressive, whose brushstrokes convey great energy.

Turner or Constable? That question got a lot harder to answer.

For more, buy the exhibition catalogue, “Constable and Brighton: Something out of Nothing.” It is available on Amazon for only $9.60 with Prime (regularly $36.50).

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