The importance of landscape painting changed under the influence of the Romantic movement in the late 18th century, and great artists took the job of elevating this genre of painting to new dimensions as their life goal. Tradition was both an obstacle and help. Two English artists of Romanticism approached this problem differently, though equally interesting and inspirational for generations to follow, those were J.M.W. Turner and John Constable.
Turner was a successful artists whose paintings often caused sensation on the Royal Academy. His ambition in life was to reach, if not surpass, the glory of Claude Lorraine’s landscapes. When he died, Turner left all his paintings, drawings and sketches to the English nation, under one condition – that his painting Dido building Carthage (1815) is always exhibited next to the paintings of Claude Lorrain. His comparison is a bit unfair; while the world of Lorrain’s paintings is a world of dreams, undisturbed serenity and simplicity, Turner’s painting, which also reflect fantastical worlds bathed in gold lightness and shining with beauty, radiate not serenity but motion and excitement, his worlds are not those of simple harmonies but of astonishing grandeur. Turner deliberately painted with an aim to captive and amaze the viewer, and his landscape of turbulent seas, storms and fires imply the romantic sumptuousness of nature.
If we take a look at Turner’s painting above ‘Burial at Sea’ the sense of excitement and movement is evident, and limited amount of colours – black, yellow, white and blue were quite enough for Turner to create this dynamic rapture. Objects in Turner’s art are usually shapeless, but as Stephane Mallarme said “To define is to kill. To suggest is to create.” Turner’s sea scenes of boats, storms and waves are here to fulfill the needs of our imagination, not to teach us about boats and boat equipment. Turner’s paintings always portray an emotion.
Tradition was always a burden for Constable. It’s not that he lacked the admiration for old masters, but he simply wanted to paint what he saw in front of him, not what Claude Lorrain saw centuries ago. To Constable ideas weren’t of much importance, all that mattered was the truth. Fashionable landscape painters of the time admired painters such as Lorrain and invented a whole set of techniques which allowed them to easily create such works for their bourgeois customers. The formula was simple: a tree in the foreground as a contrast to the vast nature scene in the background, soft brownish and golden shades in the foreground, and the background was suppose to turn pale from blue to white shades. Constable despised all those tricks. And really, where are all those imitation of imitations of landscapes, while Constable remains an important painter of his generation.
It is said that a friend objected to Constable for not using the usual soft ‘violin’ brown shades in the foreground of his paintings, to which Constable replied by taking a violin outdoors and comparing its soft brown shade to the radiant green colour of the grass; the real colour instead of the conventional shades of brown that the audience was accustomed to. But Constable didn’t want to shock the audience, he simply wanted to paint what he saw. Green grass, such a ‘radical move’. His perhaps best known painting ‘The Hay Wain’ shows exactly what Constable wanted to achieve: paint nature with honesty and simplicity by refusing to paint landscapes more impressive than nature itself.
Breaking with tradition left the landscape artists with two paths embodied in Turner and Constable. Painters could either become ‘poets’ in painting in search of wild, touching and dramatic effects, or, they could hold onto the real motif and explore it with all their persistence and honesty. Another representative of the first group is my darling Caspar David Friedrich and his poetic, melancholic scenes of forests at night or lovers by the shore. Camille Corot is a good example of the second path: he studied nature attentively and infused his painting with honesty, that way influencing the development of Realism in France.
Which path is more appealing to you? I know some art historians think that the second path achieved something of long-lasting value, but I support the first path because romanticised nature in art appeals to me more.