LONDON — In the end, the Outsider became the Insider. It was in 1802 that a young landscape painter from rural Suffolk called John Constable first had his work shown at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in London. Twenty-seven years later, and only eight years before his own death, he was elected a Royal Academician, after having been repeatedly rejected, often with scorn. He embraced his new role with gusto. He taught life drawing to students of the Royal Academy Schools. He delivered lectures on the history of landscape painting. He willingly threw himself into the grind of the institution’s committees. He even made a memorial in oils to the Academy’s first president, which is called “Cenotaph to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds.” It’s a rather strange confection, part untamed pastoral, and part a heavy-handed piece of stage-managed symbolism. A great stag, antlers all a-flourish, stands proud in a woodland scene next to Reynolds’s tomb, flanked by busts of Raphael and Michelangelo, which are raised up on tall, thin stone plinths. They face in toward the tomb of the master, as if in homage. What an absurdity! Yes, you could say that Constable’s acceptance by the establishment had come at a considerable cost to his art.

Installation view of Late Constable at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, October 30, 2021–February 13, 2022 (Photo: © Royal Academy of Arts, London / David Parry)

The story of Late Constable, on view at the Royal Academy of Arts, is one of physical displacement — and personal tragedy, too. After his marriage in 1816, he lived full-time in London, far away from the Vale of Dedham, that landscape of his birth and growing, which he had come to make his own as a painter. His father had been a prosperous dealer in corn. Henceforth many of the later landscapes of those childhood places would be evocations of remembered scenes. Sentimentality would creep in, as would idealization. The need to make his mark in public would also oblige him to paint BIG. Six-footers! Those were the ones that commanded, and even seemed to demand, the best sight-lines, drawing the eye of the idle onlooker by their sheer size. How else to get the attention of the crowds at the swank of the Summer Exhibition? But even the greatest of them was often not quite as good as the oil sketch that sometimes preceded the final work. “The Leaping Horse” is a case in point. He made two versions of it, separated by 10 years, one in 1825, the second in 1835. The first is nervy, flickery, fresh, and vibrant; the second is more considered, finished, and cautiously dull. You see exactly the same in the work of Rubens — the preliminary oil sketch often possesses a vibrancy, a quickness, a sureness of touch, which the finished work conspicuously lacks.

There was another problem too. London was not necessarily a healthy place to be. His wife had tuberculosis, and so three years after settling himself permanently in the city, he shifted the family to lodgings in Hampstead, then to the north of the capital, where the air was good. And it was on Hampstead Heath that he created some of his greatest works, cloudscapes, quick and impromptu, visions caught on the wing, each one annotated with its date. These plein air paintings seize the very moment of their looking.  

John Constable, “Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows” (c. 1829), oil on canvas, 36.5 x 51.1 cm. Tate, Bequeathed by Henry Vaughan 1900 (Photo © Tate)

Consider “Rainbow Over the Sea” (c. 1824), included in this exhibition, for example. There is such elemental fury in this modest painting, the vertical strokes crossing swords with the horizontal. Unfortunately, these works are generally very small, and small tends to get overlooked …. Dozens of these paintings were bequeathed, unsold, to the nation after his death.

One of these paintings, “Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree” (c. 1824), ought to have been in this show — but it is not. Nor was it ever shown in public during his lifetime. His sister Isabel bequeathed it to the Victoria and Albert Museum after his death. In 2003, the painter Lucien Freud singled it out for special attention when he made a choice of some of his favorite works by Constable for an exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris. He hung it at the exhibition’s entrance, far away from the rest of the selections, as if to say: take a good look at this. See what Constable came to undervalue as a result of the pressure of public taste. Not only was it hung alone, it was also unframed and somewhat ragged at the edges. And it was attached to the wall with the aid of a few pins. A studied act of irreverence? Not really.

John Constable, “Cloud Study, Hampstead, Tree at Right” (September 11, 1821), oil on paper laid on board, red ground, 24.1 x 29.9 x cm. Royal Academy of Arts, London (Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photographer: John Hammond)

The subject matter of this oil sketch was the kind of thing that Constable loved lifelong, but could only ever regard as a mere detail on the way to something more studiedly grandiose. The painting shows off the massive trunk of an elm tree and almost nothing more. It is more than enough. Its presence is hefty, if not burly and bullish, commanding its ground magnificently. We are being encouraged to admire its singular character — the marvelous fleckings of its bark, for example — in this grassy clearing, surrounded by other trees. It exists for itself alone. It has no further story to tell. 

Constable was finally elected a full Royal Academician on February 10, 1829. It was a close-run thing, though; he was elected by a single vote. (Poignantly, his wife had died of tuberculosis three months before the vote, leaving him in charge of seven children of 12 years of age or younger.) Nor did he even expect to be accepted this time. In fact, before the election, he made it evident that he was frustratedly steeling himself to fail once again. He had, he wrote, “little heart to face an ordeal … from some ‘high-minded’ members who stickle for the ‘elevated & noble’ walks of art — i.e. preferring the shaggy posteriors of a Satyr to the moral feeling of landscape.” 

Such was the lowly status of a painter of mere landscape.

Late Constable continues at the Royal Academy of Arts (6 Burlington Gardens, London, England) through February 13, 2022. The exhibition was curated by Annie Lyles, former curator at Tate Britain, and Per Rumberg, curator at the Royal Academy of Arts.

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times, the Financial Times,...