Rachel Cohen

I just had time

I just had time

John Constable, Stoke-by-Nayland, 1836, Art Institute of Chicago. All photos Rachel Cohen.

The Art Institute of Chicago is closed again, but I was able to go, almost every week, for nearly two months.

And, I fell in love with a painting.

I didn’t know it was there. The last painting by John Constable, completed in 1836, Stoke-by-Nayland.

It is still so early in the acquaintance, but, because of the circumstances, I do think I had accelerated attention.

In the beautiful opening of Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oyster, a book I have read and reread, the writer sees a 17th century Dutch still life, is filled to the brim with it, falls in love, more than that, he says, comes out on to the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and carries the warm suspension of the painting and the museum into the cold winter air and loves the world. Doty himself was I think reading and rereading a very brilliant and disruptive essay by Zbigniew Herbert from Still Life with Bridle about being summoned and sharpened by the one remaining painting by Torrentius, an event that occurred on Herbert’s first visit to the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands. Herbert’s essay begins, “This is how it happened.”

And I am realizing, trying to form this today, that one thing about getting deeply involved with a painting is that it is specific, to each writer and painting, that there are so many different ways.

In my case, I was, on Thursday, October 22nd, walking through an almost painfully empty gallery full of brilliant large Manets and a variety of landscape paintings, and there was one I didn’t like, which I thought might be by Théodore Rousseau, whose impasto always irritates me. It was extremely large. I checked the label anyway, and was amazed that it was a Constable. I was amazed not because I had looked at it and thought about it, but because the large Constables are so rare, and I am devoted to them, and there couldn’t be one in Chicago that I hadn’t looked for.

It was, though.

Even with this readjustment in my thinking, the painting seemed too rough to me. I couldn’t get oriented, there were a lot of thumps and whacks of color, too much of some kind of taupe everywhere.

And then, I was in love.

Memory that lives in the landscape -- John Constable

Memory that lives in the landscape  John Constable

John Constable, The White Horse, 1819. The Frick Museum of Art.  

A painting I have been thinking about this week is John Constable’s The White Horse, which is a painting I used to love at the Frick Museum and to visit regularly for many years. At that time, the Frick did not allow pictures, and I never took them anyway, and so I have no detail photographs of the kind I now use to go back and look, and can only reproduce here this distant internet picture.

John Constable, The White Horse, 1819, the Frick Museum, poor quality reproduction from the internet.

I have a kind of memory of paint that generally only comes back when I am in the presence of the picture, and can take up the same stance toward it that I have taken before. It comes from seeing the areas of paint in the picture with sufficient focus to see the layers that are not visible in a standard reproduction. I do not have the kind of memory that some great art critics have, where they can call up the quality of the picture, but if I am with the picture, then I can feel how I have looked at the paint before, the way a blue overlays a gray, and the resultant shimmer is something I know. It just feels nice to be in contact with it again. Sometimes this kind of knowledge adds together with other things to make an interpretation of the picture that is worth sharing, sometimes it is just a private pleasure.

Next week I am going to begin teaching Emma at the 92nd Street Y, and so I am thinking about the landscape of Highbury, the village almost populous enough to be a town, in which the novel takes place. It is in Surrey, a little to the south of London. The characters walk there, in detail, all through the book, and I have read it so much that I seem to feel the dirt and pebbles beneath the soles of my shoes, the thickness of the grass, the heat of certain days and drenching rain on others.

It turns out that you can see The White Horse very close up, through the wonders of the internet, at the Frick Museum’s website. When I went to look, I caught my breath. Reproductions had given me no sense of the time I had spent with the painting, but now I could see it. Especially the area of the water in the center, with its reflections, the way the water plants spike through the water. Especially something about the attitudes of the two figures on the boat with the horse, especially the small black birds wheeling in the clouds above the largest tree. It came back, the picture.

Here you can enter to see the White Horse at the Frick

A little more research uncovers that the oil sketch for this painting is at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. They make their works available, so I can show this one, and something of the wonderful qualities of its paint. Here is it complete:

John Constable, The White Horse, oil sketch, 1818-1819, National Gallery of Art, higher quality reproduction from the museum's website.

Constable’s practice was to make these huge 4 x 6 foot sketches for each of his large landscape paintings. He painted the places he knew best, in his own country, in Suffolk, and particularly the valley around the river Stour. Now, with our modern eyes and preference for the free handling of Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism, many of us prefer the sketches to the finished paintings. And this is indeed a work of great beauty, which I saw in a wonderful exhibition of Constables at the Tate Gallery in 2006 which united many of the best known six-foot paintings with their correspondent six-foot oil sketches.

Here you can come closer to what the paint feels like:

The sketch has its own layered history, described in detail at “The Constable Project” on the NGA’s website. In brief, for a long time it seemed that the oil sketch Constable should have done for the White Horse, following his regular practice, was missing, but there was instead some kind of clumsy refinished copy of the Frick’s painting that didn't seem good enough to be a Constable. The museum's curators realized that someone had overpainted what was in fact the sketch, to try to make it look more finished and were able to strip away that layer to get down to the oil sketch, which lives now in all its resplendent and calm beauty.

Memory that lives in the layers – of dirt on familiar roads, of clouds in familiar skies, of paint in familiar pictures – that is what the regular traversal of a certain landscape may teach us.

Feeling the Air, II

Feeling the Air II

Constable, Hampstead Heath with Bathers, 1821-22, iphone detail

In New York in the fall, making my way through the reorganized back rooms of 19th century European art at the Metropolitan Museum, I was pleased by two landscape recoveries.  Wonderful oil sketches by Constable that used to hang scattered in obscurity, somewhere past the Corots, have been hung together, with prominence.  And three Daubignys, for many years unviewable, now hang in a row, constituting a quiet assertion, long missing at the museum, that this is a painter worth contemplating.
    Constable and Daubigny are tied together in various ways.  An important exhibition of Constable’s oil paintings at the Salon de Paris in 1824 had an impact on the French landscape painters who were to become the Barbizon School, of which Daubigny was a part. Daubigny himself would have been seven years old at the time of this exhibition, but other contact with the work of the great British landscape painters was of significance for him at several key moments in his development.

Intersections are not only biographical.  A nice passage comparing the two painters turns up in a 1903 monograph on Constable by Robert George Windsor-Clive, earl of Plymouth.  Daubigny, writes Windsor-Clive, loved “the quiet tones of early morning and evening effects on the French rivers from a barge on the Oise or the Seine; translucent skies and clear reflections.  He seemed generally to prefer the bright though tender colours of spring and early summer, to the heavier and more sombre tones of August.”  Not so Constable, who chose “the sharper contrasts of midday light, the angry storm-clouds broken by bright flashes of sunlight, and the heavy greens of midsummer.” Nevertheless, the two had something significant in common: “both artists approach Nature with the same honest intention of painting her, so far as they are able, as they see her.” [itals mine]  This was to be accomplished “not with the warm brown foundation and limited colour-scheme of the old school, but with the full perception and enjoyment of local colour both in shadow and in sunlight.”
    The phrase “as they see her,” could be put into the present continuous to bring out something of the painters’ particular quality – as they are in the act of seeing her.  These two, I think, have an unusual genius for making the viewer feel the air. Two of the works I studied at the Met may help me to try to say what I mean.

John Constable’s oil sketch “Hampstead Heath with Bathers,” was one of about a hundred such sketches that he made in that rural location in 1821 and 1822.

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The project was to suggest particular effects of atmosphere.  The text at the Met notes a beautiful fact, that Constable “called this practice ‘skying.’”

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The museum text also points out that Constable “often included a strip of land to contribute a sense of scale and depth.”  This sounds technical, even mechanical, as if it describes a scientific manual that overlays diagrams with little black stripes of measurement. But here, actually, is no mere strip of land, but a protected cove for bathers who are to be seen standing waist-deep in the water.

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The feeling of the sketch (it is a small one, slightly less than ten inches by a little more than fifteen) is that one is oneself wading in the water while the vast sky rushes overhead.  

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The sensation comes partly from the white brushstrokes over the blue of the sky, partly from the way the water gathers and reflects the other colors of the scene, partly from some elusive but definite feeling that the painter molded the paint to reflect the day he was in. The wind was in his eyes.  He wrote on the back of the picture, “July—noon—Hampstead Heath—looking north—wind south east.”

The Daubigny, as the Earl of Plymouth might say, eschews these sharp contrasts of noon and midsummer.  Here is a first sighting.  Distracted by the frame, the shadow cast by the museum’s overhead lights, the photo has the not-knowing-where-to-look quality of the first encounter:

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[Although my iphone pictures have their awkwardnesses, I still prefer them to the Met's online reproductions of these two works, which are curiously bleached of color.  The Constable is lacking the reds and purples that give the heat and excitement of the day, while the Daubigny is missing the cool, dark greens that settle the eyes for darkness.]

In the Daubigny, as in the Constable, figures come to water.  But in the Daubigny our imagination makes us not bathers, but someone who watches the cows returning to the village in the evening.

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The water feels entirely different in the two pictures – one all salt and wind, the other mild and still, for slaking thirst and for repose.  Nevertheless, the presence of water is of great help to both these painters, wishing, as they do, to paint the sky and its movements.  Reflections give a second view, and the looker-on, measuring the sky and its image together, may find it easier to guess and enter the feeling of the day.  One of the great beauties of the Daubigny painting is the way all its gentle forces meet and are reflected back to one another in this central convergence:  

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The light has a luminous yellow arriving from the sky.  Effects of light are entirely different depending on where you look in the picture. A lovely passage of sunset is here:

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I think it is this variety of atmospheric effects within the work that eventually gave me an experience I associate with Daubigny. After looking slowly and with consideration, the painting seemed to show a later time, and to have become more tranquil.  As I became accustomed to it, it had the very effect on me that one sometimes observes in oneself in the evening.  Standing still, looking at the sky, or, especially, the sky and the water together, one feels that the world has, before one’s eyes, grown a shade darker, and that one is oneself aware of the world and a small part of it.  When I photographed what felt like my last understanding of the painting, it came to this:

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On Photography I

On Photography I

Pissarro, A Cowherd at Valhermeil, 1874, iphone.


After years of scorning people who come to museums and take pictures – souvenir-hunters! they don’t even look at the paintings! – on Tuesday I found myself in the Impressionist rooms at the Met zealously photographing details with my iphone held up in front of the canvases.  I had two impulses, or justifications: it seemed expedient – I was in New York for a day only, had a mere hour with the pictures – this was a way to take notes.  And at the same time, or even before the thought of expediency occurred to me, I also knew that having details of paintings is very helpful if you are going to post about them.  Already the fact of keeping this notebook is changing the way I go to museums.

The second picture I took showed me that the modest magnification of the iphone makes an enormous difference in what you can see.  I started with some little Boudin figures at the beach:

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I have always felt that if you wait long enough and give yourself patiently to the act of looking your eye will learn to see at this level of detail.  But here, presto, the machine could do it instantly – and then looking at the painting with the naked eye I could see it all myself, trained, in a second, by the clarification of the machine.

As I went on, taking pictures of Constables and Daubignys, and made my way to the Pissarro room, I began to experience some of the pitfalls of the new method.  The iphone camera overclarifies.  It sharpens contrasts, defines edges where the paint is deliberately ambiguous.  So that I was in fact learning to see a painting that wasn’t the painting I was looking at.  I had to try to compensate in the other direction, photographing so quickly that the camera had not yet quite had time to resolve the image, and this seemed to more clearly approximate the paint as it was actually there.

Still, the exciting thing was that I could actually keep track of the sequence of my observations.  For example, I saw this beautiful Pissarro from 1874, the year of the first great Impressionist exhibition, painted at Pontoise, one of Pissarro’s favorite places to paint.

I saw the picture whole:

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Then my eye went to this passage of paint in the foreground:

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Then to the cowherd of the picture’s title:

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A cart further along:

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Paint to right foreground, the yellow, blues and lavendars:

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Stretch of cultivated field down to earth:

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[ Technology suggests and constrains.  I find I am limited in the number of images I can post.  Just at this moment of drama, when we are about to see further into the picture, I will have to ask my reader to wait.  The rest of the sequence will be found under Pissarro, On Photography II ]