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by N.F. Karlins
The love between the 19th-century English artist John Constable (1776-1837) and Maria Bicknell has all the ingredients of a good biopic. 

A would-be artist of humble origins, son of a windmill operator, falls for a local girl, in this case the daughter of the solicitor to the Regent and Admiralty. Her grandfather, a starchy rector in the suitor’s neighborhood, won’t hear of it. Seven years after declaring his love, the young couple finally marries, lives happily and, despite her ill health, eventually have seven children. But she dies of tuberculosis, and he’s left distraught even though he becomes a full member of the Royal Academy the very next year.

More than a plot, this is the story of John Constable’s marriage. Now the Salander-O’Reilly Gallery has pulled together a spectacular exhibition based on this period in the English artist’s life, "Constable’s Oil Sketches, 1809-29: The Maria Bicknell Years."

While Constable’s "six-footers" -- immense oils depicting the landscapes of his native Suffolk that he made to earn money -- look all too labored-over for most people today, his sketches retain a spontaneity and freshness that has made him one of the world’s most respected and beloved artists. 

Constable felt as one with the landscape, and it showed in the vigorous, idiosyncratic brushwork he conjured up for each of his sketches once he reached his artistic maturity. Not studies for his large, carefully plotted paintings, these small pieces were executed rapidly for his own delight and as a way of studying Nature -- yes, with a capital "N" -- and finding motifs for larger works. 

Constable’s metaphysical relationship with Nature was much like that of the American Transcendentalists’ pantheism. Perhaps that’s why American gallery-owner Lawrence B. Salander is so attuned to Constable and his muse. Salander’s essay in the show catalogue mentions that the vicar "was taken with the intensity of his [Constable’s] painting and his reference to God’s work, as well as his declaration of love for his granddaughter Maria, present in each sketch painted from 1809 through 1829, the year following her death."

What a delightful visual journey it is to track Constable’s progress! After the rather bland early sketches, you can see Constable beginning to cut loose, especially in the sky area, in Stoke-by-Nayland (1811) in which the church buildings remain rooted to the earth, while the sky and the foreground are slashed in and dashed about. The cows don’t seem to notice, but you will.

Constable did a ground-breaking series of cloud paintings, the subject of an earlier gallery show, further proof of Salander’s devotion to the artist. Happily, several excellent examples are in this show, too. Contemporaneous with his cloud studies, Constable made other sketches noting the date and time and often the conditions when they were painted. His Hampstead: Stormy Sunset was made on July 31, 1822, for example. He used every kind of stroke, smear and squiggle to get the clouds accurately. His use of white to finish his works, here and elsewhere, makes the details pop.

When Maria’s health continued to decline in the country, doctors suggested the sea air; thus, the family spent part of the years 1824 to 1828 at Brighton. The sea sketches are wonderful, even though Constable wrote a letter in which he claimed to be annoyed by the crowds. His The Sea at Brighton (January 1826) with its birds and boats shows no sign of upset. It is a monumental paean to the sea, though it measures only about six by nine inches.

It has been argued that Constable’s use of the palette knife in Stormy Sea, Brighton (1828) has a lot to do with his anguish over Maria’s failing health. This seems likely. His beloved Maria was to die later in the year. In fact, Constable’s concern for her health may have been behind his exasperation with the crowds, too. 

I think a similar case of anxiety creeping into a painting might be made for Constable’s A Windmill and Gleaners at Brighton (August 20, 1824), painted at a time when the family first went to the shore. I understand that being a windmill operator’s son may have made the gleaners a reassuring sight, especially bathed in glowing light. But the right-hand side of the canvas has a lowering sky with a white windmill seeming to hold back storm clouds and/or perhaps to lift its arms in warning. It appears ominous to me.

After Maria’s death in late 1828, Constable’s work becomes paler, looser and flatter. Just compare his 1825 view of Child’s Hill with his circa 1829-30 view. The second is a husk of the first.

The exhibition also contains a few examples of Constable’s sketches before he fell in love. There are even a couple of sketches that the artist made in contemplating a "six-footer," which stand out in their complexity and busyness amid the others. 

"Constable’s Oil Sketches, 1809-29: The Maria Bicknell Years" has some remarkable loans from both public and private collections. The show is on view until June 16, 2007.

The handsome catalogue contains an essay on the sketches by Anne Lyles, a technical study on Constable’s use of millboard and paper by Sarah Cove, among other valuable contributions.

N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.