Turner and Constable at the Clark a Mild Disappointment

Turner and Constable
Clark Museum of Art  (Williamstown, MA)
Through March 10, 2019

John Constable

JMW Turner
Few 18th century British artists have gained as much fame–much of it posthumous–as John Constable and J.M.W. Turner. They are displayed side by side in a current exhibit at the Clark Museum of Art. Alas, the artists' reputations exceed the merits of the show.


Of the two, John Constable (1776-1837) was the more conventional in both his painting and in his private life. (He did go through a reckless spending spree around the time his beloved wife Maria died in 1828.) Constable is known for his genre landscapes and dramatic skies. Depending on how you feel about depictions of wind in the trees, Constable is either the master of that technique or Marcel Marceau with a paintbrush.

I confess that Constable is not among my favorite artists. Too much of his work is of grand houses in sylvan settings that look like treatments for a Downton Abbey spinoff. Constable also romanticized the British countryside. For me, his watercolors are more inspiring that his oils. In the Clark show, his small studies and downsized oils intrigue more than his larger canvases.

J(oseph) M(allard) William Turner (1775-1851) was, simply, a weird individual who was short on social graces. Call him the enfant terrible of his generation. His mother was mentally ill and many have speculated that "William," his chosen name of address, may have inherited some of her instability. He was a loner who never married, though he did father two children by his housekeeper. Turner was constantly short of money and often lived amidst hand-to-mouth grime. He also shocked his contemporaries with his crude behavior.

There was no doubting his talent and he gained entry into the Royal Academy of Arts, his personal quirks notwithstanding. If you see a conventional-looking Turner, chances are good it was painted for a Royal Academy show. My favorite works of his are his moody oils and his loose and gauzy watercolors. Turner's signature works often sport low contrast tones that jump to life because of a splash of contrasting hue–a red smudge or bright side lighting in a dark room, for instance. Turner may have been mad or eccentric, but he left behind an astonishing number off canvasses.

That last remark is the foundation for my summary of the Clark show: too many Constables and not enough Turners. The lack of Turners makes the overall show feel as if it is cut from the same monochromatic cloth. The opening display is an unintended metaphor for the show's deficiencies. The first is a beach scene from Constable titled "Yarmouth Jetty." (See above) It is splendid in all the ways Constable tends to be. As is often the case, he violated the rule of thirds by making a dramatic sky dominate two-thirds of the frame. Sailing ships lean into the picture and the red-capped draughtsman draws the eye to the left foreground. 

Contrast this with a Turner beach scene, "View off Margate, Evening." (See above). The two approaches to ships on the horizon couldn't be more different. Notice the red and black tones in the lower right that look as if Turner was attacking his canvas rather than painting it. Notice also the orange sail leaning right and wispy figures on the beach leaning left. On the other side of the canvas we see what appears to be a cargo ship, but you have to look closely or you might see it as a ghost image. Turner laid on paint thickly in some parts of the image and barely skimmed the surface with color on other parts. Constable pictures always look complete; Turner's look as if he has just stepped back to contemplate what comes next. They also move, whereas most Constables are more static.


Would that there were more side-by-side moments in the Clark show. It's a small exhibit that takes up just two rooms and oddly enough, it makes the absence of diversity more noticeable. It's as if one could exit after seeing the first two paintings, as they vividly highlight the differences between Constable and Turner. I will credit the Clark for choosing some smaller Constables to contemplate. I was drawn to his "Sketch for the Opening of Waterloo Bridge," probably because its energy and disorder reminded me more of Turner. Even then, I preferred Turner's "Tummel Bridge, Perthshire." Okay, I admit that might be personal, as I've crossed that Scottish bridge. (I assume/hope it has had structural improvements since Turner visited in 1801!)

I would not call the current Clark exhibit a failure. It's more like a much anticipated restaurant meal that turns out to fine, but not special.

Rob Weir

No comments: