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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



John Constable, British, 1776-1837. Salisbury Cathedral from the South West, ca. 1820. Oil on canvas, 25.1 x 30.2 cm. The Victoria and Albert Museum. (c)Victoria and Albert Museum/V & A images.

On the way back from my visit to the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, I stopped at Princeton NJ to view “John Constable: Oil Sketches from the Victoria and Albert Museum” at the Princeton University Art Museum (through June 10; now at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, in Nashville, through September 30). I’d been told about this show by Cara London, the painter, who – being based in Flemington-– really knows her New Jersey museums, and she and I went through this show together (which made it doubly enjoyable).

I’m terribly sorry it’s taken me so long to tell my readers about this show, because it’s truly beautiful, and quite large, too, with 85 paintings, oil sketches, watercolors and drawings from the great Romantic landscapist who to me best exemplifies every Briton’s love of what Constable’s poet contemporary William Blake called “England’s green and pleasant land.” The show includes full-scale studies for two of Constable’s “six-footers,” the large paintings that made him famous when they were exhibited:: “The Hay Wain” (1821) and “The Leaping Horse”(1825). These large-scale studies represent an intermediate phase between the finished painting, and the many smaller landscape oil sketches that Constable made from nature wherever he worked.

While the large-scale studies are very impressive, what makes this show so especially well worth seeing are all these smaller sketches from nature. They are grouped around the locales in which the artist lived and worked, starting with his original home in the Stour River Valley and progressing on to work made in Hampstead, Salisbury and Brighton. And they are free, wonderfully free & open, anticipating the freedom of impressionism, th0ugh that wouldn't come along until much, much later in the 19th century. I only hope that at least some of the good people in Nashville are getting as much pleasure from this show as I did.
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