March 2, 2014 8:54 pm

Constable: ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows’, National Museum, Cardiff

The painter considered this ambitious, emotionally charged six-foot canvas to be his masterpiece
‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows’ (1831)

‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows’ (1831)

Constable’s last great six-footer landscape, begun in 1829 at the home of his close friend John Fisher, Bishop of Salisbury, was acquired for £23m last May by Tate in conjunction with four regional UK museums. These are now venues on a national tour, beginning in Wales, where the painting is displayed alongside Cardiff’s classic early Constable, “A Cottage in a Cornfield” and other works – including Turners – from its collection.

With its tumultuous skies and great rainbow arching over a grey spire, “Salisbury Cathedral” is among Constable’s most ambitious compositions, and he considered it his masterpiece. The mood is one of instability and agitation, achieved through broken, staccato brushwork; the motif of “the Church under a cloud” echoed Constable’s emotional turbulence when he started work on the painting following the death of his wife Maria. “Every gleam of sunshine is blighted for me,” he said. “Tempest on tempest rolls. Still the darkness is majestic.” He never recovered; art historian Kenneth Clark believed that his paintings lost the fresh joy in the natural world that had animated six-footers such as “The Leaping Horse”. Thus the rapture of early works such as the small, intense “A Cottage in a Cornfield” here, Wordsworthian in its simple expression of an ardent response to nature, was replaced by a more contrived style, reflecting Constable’s darker feelings – songs of innocence giving way to what Clark called “twisted, storm-shattered songs of experience”.

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Constable had almost no influence on 19th-century British painting, but in France his work was well received and had immediate impact on the plein air Barbizon school, thus connecting to impressionism. Cardiff’s impressionist and post-impressionist collection is stunning: amassed by Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, teetotal Methodist granddaughters of a coal and railway industrialist, it features outstanding Cézannes, Monets (a “Rouen Cathedral” and three “Water Lilies”), Renoir’s “La Parisienne” and “Rain – Auvers”, the great pessimistic landscape that Van Gogh painted in his final weeks, and which will now hang near Constable’s late tragic vision.

From Friday to September 7, museumwales.ac.uk

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