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Constable at the Salmagundi Club

Robert Sievert

John Constable: "Sandbanks And A Cart And Horse On Hempstead Heath",
oil on paper (9 1/2 x 11 x 1/2)
laid on canvas (8 1/2 x 10 1/8),
early 1820's

George Gray:
"Sketch of the Façade of The Salmagundi Club"
ink on paper


What do you know about John Constable? Great skys -- standout paintings at shows of English Art -- or maybe for the fortunate a solo show of this remarkable English painter who was active two hundred years ago. He was a somewhat mystery to me until I saw this show and read the materials around the room and the small but excellent catalogue.

But then Constable was very happy with things small. One of the more interesting pieces in the exhibit was nine miniatures all 1 inch by 2 inches set in one frame. There were gems, and what made them so startling was the each small painting of the English countryside, dotted with stately buildings, had its own distinctive light. I understood Constable's genius at once. Large or small his painting captured an authentic space and light, essential to any landscape.

The show at The Salmagundi Club (October 14-November 2)is an intimate look at a magnificent collection of one of its members, Sir Edward Manton.

Obviously the best painting in the show was "Sandbags And a Cart On Hempstead Heath (pictured at left). This oil painting was only 8 x 10 inches but achieves a certain grandness in scale associated with larger works. He achieved a deep painterly space. The sky shoots back pushing the countryside forward which separates into form with brilliant light and color. And oh, that sky.

Not every piece of work was of first quality, but this gave one the opportunity to see the artist at work. Many of the watercolors had faded into dull browns and grays that still accurately portray scenes but lacked the allure of color and light that I'm sure Constable had accomplished. A painting of a river diagonally that cuts the canvas had too many problems to be successful, but one still sensed the artist's intentions. Not every artist can be inspired when one is a disciplined worker, there has to be room for exploration and spontaneity.

His methodical approach to his work is very evident in "Leathes Water (Thirlmere)", a pencil drawing done in 1806. Here you see the skeleton of his technique. Loose sketchy shapes that define the space and then a steady rhythmic overlay of values. He was certainly a master.

What I didn't know was how long it took him to get there. It is truly inspiring to learn that Constable practiced long and hard to acquire his technique before he flowered into the painter we all lov