A GREAT artist's rough studies and sketches are often of equal, and occasionally of even greater, interest than his or her finished and more polished paintings. Not only is the original creative impulse more clearly revealed in such quickly dashed-off works, but the artist's ideas and attitudes haven't as yet been modified by social or artistic conventions, or neutralized by a desire to please. Of no one is this more true than John Constable (1776-1837), the great English landscape painter, who did as much as anyone else to revolutionize the way nature was perceived and given pictorial form in the early 19th century. Important and impressive as his major canvases may be, quite a number lost at least some of their sparkle and impact when translated from outdoor sketches to finished pictures in his studio.
Not surprisingly, considering their quality and Constable's fame, many of these preliminary exercises have survived. Most are in museums, a few are in private collections, and several of the best have been reproduced and discussed in books devoted to Constable's art. Some have remained in the artist's family, where they've been seen and studied by Constable scholars, and from which they've occasionally ventured to enliven exhibitions of his work.
A handful, including student work and mature nature studies, have remained unpublished and little known. A number of these, together with well over a hundred paintings, oil sketches, drawings, and prints, have been assembled by Salander-O'Reilly Galleries here in a truly outstanding demonstration of Constable's genius and passion for the English countryside.
There are early academic studies of nudes; sweeping panoramas and sharply focused outdoor scenes; dramatic cloud studies; portraits of family and friends; oils in which the paint has been as thickly laid on as by any of the early moderns, and others executed with all the delicacy of 18th-century landscapists; a charming oil sketch of a mouse; exquisitely toned pencil drawings; and roughly 50 mezzotints after some of his better-known paintings.