Light and Nature: Turner and Constable

Turner Norham Castle, Sunrise@0

J. M. W. Turner

Joseph Mallord William Turner was the son of a barber, born in Maiden Lane, London, in 1775. He studied in the Royal Academy schools beginning in 1789, and by 1807 had become Professor of Perspective. His career at the Academy peaked in 1845 with his election as its Deputy President. Turner’s innovations in landscape painting, notably his use of coloristic effects verging on the abstract, did not meet with universal approval, but he remained professionally successful throughout his career. At his death in 1851, he left a sizeable estate to found a charity for “Decayed Artists,” though the scheme was confounded due to a faulty will.

Norham Castle, Sunrise

Norham Castle, Sunrise was painted in 1844. Measuring 91 x 122 cm, in oil on canvas, the painting hangs today in the Tate Gallery in London, the main repository of the artist’s works.

Constable Hampstead Heath@0

John Constable

John Constable was born in 1776, in East Bergholt, Suffolk. Son of an established mill-owner, Constable described later in life how his rural upbringing prompted his interest in landscape painting. After early studies with a local amateur painter, Constable became a student at the Royal Academy in 1799, eventually a full member in 1829. Constable’s stylistic innovations were given enthusiastic reception in France, where Eugene Delacroix claimed Constable as a model in his resistance to academic conventions. Constable led a notably felicitous life, marred only occasionally by bouts of depression. He died in 1837, still in the prime of his working life.

Hampstead Heath with a Rainbow

Constable painted Hampstead Heath with a Rainbow in 1836, a year before his death. In oil on canvas, measuring 755 x 1010 mm, the painting was bequeathed to the Tate Gallery in London in 1888 by the artist’s daughter Isabel.

Related Books and References

Finley, Gerald E. “Turner: An Early Experiment with Colour Theory,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 30 (1967): 357-366.

Rees, Ronald. “Constable, Turner, and Views of Nature in the Nineteenth Century,” Geographical Review, Vol. 72, No. 3 (July, 1982): 253-269.

Light and the Painter’s Art

One basis for comparing Turner’s and Constable’s paintings is their attempts to capture natural light. Light itself was a subject of much interest in the first half of the nineteenth century in England. Isaac Newton had published his Optics in 1704, and for a century it had reigned as the ultimate authority on the nature and behavior of light. However, in 1801, new experimental evidence had been brought forward to challenge Newton’s theories of the (unseen) material basis of optical laws. Further, as Turner and Constable matured as artists, artists and scientists alike were coming to new and different conceptions of color and its visible interactions, both as light and as pigments.

In both Turner’s and Constable’s landscapes, we see the artists attempting to depict natural optical phenomena. Consider each artist’s use of color in particular, i.e. their respective “palettes.” How does each use a range of colors to identify separate physical entities and immaterial phenomena within the landscape? Does the handling of the paint itself (e.g. how thinly or thickly it is applied, or how it is drawn or “washed” onto the canvas) affect how it represents the thing or phenomenon it depicts? Is there any sense in either painting in which the imperative to depict nature and its light accord or conflict with the imperatives to produce an interesting painting?

Art and Nature

Close contemporaries, Turner and Constable were also great professional rivals for preeminence among English landscape artists. In Norham Castle, Sunrise and Hampstead Heath with a Rainbow we find each artist returning to a favorite theme at the height of his powers. The paintings together offer a comparison of their mature visions of nature.

Do Turner’s and Constable’s styles and subjects each add up to full-fledged, if different, versions of “nature”? That is, does each artist present the natural world in a different light (pun intended!)? Does each artist want us to see particular things in nature, or specific aspects of nature? Alternatively, is each painting simply a recording of a particular place at a particular time? How then might we account for the noticeable differences in each artist’s approach to painting in general?

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