Last Six-Foot Landscapes
Starting in the mid-1820s, Constable began to diversify his subject matter, seeking to avoid being cast as simply a regional painter. He realized that his chances of being elected a full member (or academician) of the Royal Academy were greater if he demonstrated the full range of his talent. He marked his departure from Stour valley subjects with Chain Pier, Brighton, 1827, which he apparently completed without the benefit of a full-scale sketch (though smaller ones exist). Located on the southern coast of England, Brighton had in recent times grown from a small fishing village into a fashionable resort. Constable felt the town had been vulgarized by the influx of tourists and the rash of new hotels and services to accommodate them. Nevertheless, his family resided there between 1824 and 1828 so that his wife, who suffered from tuberculosis, could take advantage of the therapeutic sea air. The painting, which originally measured nearly seven feet long before Constable cut it down, offers a panoramic view of the town's new chain-suspension pier and the buildings of the developed waterfront. These are juxtaposed against reminders of the traditional community — a boat, fisherman, and anchor — that are prominently displayed in the foreground. What interested Constable most about Brighton were the breakers and sky. Accordingly, he depicted the popular resort under blustery, overcast conditions — hardly the typical image of a tourist attraction.
In the fall of 1828, Maria Constable finally succumbed to her illness. Her devastated husband confided to a friend, "[A] void is made in my heart that can never be filled in this world. Constable's election to academician several months later did little to assuage his grief, for he felt despair at being unable to share his triumph with Maria. Nonetheless, he threw himself into work, sending Hadleigh Castle, a depiction of medieval ruins overlooking the mouth of the Thames River in southeast England, to the 1829 academy exhibition. Constable had visited the site in 1814, writing to Maria of its "melancholy grandeur." The painting itself projects a heightened sense of majesty, aligning the work more strongly with the conventions of historical landscape painting than any of his previous pictures — perhaps a conscious choice by an artist looking to prove his worth as an academician. The heavily overcast sky and the crumbling structures seem to hint at Constable's anguished state of mind, yet rays of sunshine break through the blanket of clouds as a vibrant light bathes parts of the countryside. The subtitle of the painting when exhibited was morning, after a stormy night, and Constable accompanied its entry in the exhibition catalogue with lines from "Summer" (1727) of James Thomson's poem The Seasons (1726 – 1730):
The desert joys
Wildly, through all his melancholy bounds
Rude ruins glitter; and the briny deep,
Seen from some pointed promontory's top
Far to the blue horizon's utmost verge,
Restless, reflects a floating gleam.
Toward the end of his life, Constable returned to the subject of the Stour valley in Stoke-by-Nayland, c. 1835–1837, which portrays the verdant countryside immediately surrounding a village near his native East Bergholt. He was attracted to old edifices such as Stoke's medieval church, writing that the tower "seems to impress on the surrounding country its own sacred dignity of character." Roughly executed with thick dabs of paint, Stoke-by-Nayland was long thought to be an exhibition canvas characteristic of Constable's rich, late style; however, the expressive handling, especially in the extraordinary sky, is much closer to that of known sketches than to known finished works. The painting is now acknowledged as a preparatory sketch for a six-footer that was never executed.
Constable died unexpectedly in 1837. Although he had struggled for recognition during much of his career, today he is counted among the most admired artists of the nineteenth century. His great landscapes, together with their exceptional full-scale sketches, remain his most enduring legacy.
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