John Constable and the Theory of Landscape Painting (review)
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John Constable and the Theory of Landscape Painting, by Ray Lambert; pp. xi + 269. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005, £50.00, $80.00.

Ray Lambert's new book provides a fresh approach to the familiar territory of landscape studies and a rich investigation of the aesthetic and artistic practices of the English landscape painter John Constable (1776–1837). Lambert recognizes the painter's theoretical and pedagogical identity, suggesting that Constable saw himself as a "scientist, painter, and poet" (108). Throughout the text, readers are invited to examine the visual, intellectual, and imaginative experiences made manifest through pencil, ink, or paint. And while the painter is not often considered a "Victorian" artist, having died the year Victoria inherited the throne, Lambert provides a cogent analysis of art literature that Constable considered part of his heritage. After reading this study, readers will be well-equipped to forge connections between the artist's concerns for naturalism and accuracy and Victorian landscape aesthetics and the cultural authority that science held throughout the century. [End Page 562]

Early on, Lambert suggests that other scholars have misinterpreted Constable. Rather than viewing the artist within the confines of biography, connoisseurship, or social history, Lambert focuses on the intellectual foundation of Constable's art, thus enabling readers to connect this background, with its emphasis on pictorial design and formal power, with the development of aesthetic and critical theories. He asserts that Constable's "pictorial achievements resulted from a lifelong pursuit of a Grand Theory that brought under a cohesive view the purposes and meaning of landscape art and the formal means of their achievement" (234).

Lambert organizes his varied materials clearly. The overarching argument is succinctly laid out, establishing Constable as "an imaginative artist of great formal power in pictorial design" (1). Chapter summaries often mirror the preceding arguments without becoming redundant, and they bring each chapter to a satisfying end before taking up another related topic. With each chapter introduction and conclusion readers are given a cursory glance at Lambert's broader argument. The structure flows easily from one chapter to the next: the discussion moves from modern art historians to Constable's own writings, from the paintings and prints themselves to English and continental models. (One chapter is devoted to the landscape tradition as developed by Thomas Gainsborough and Richard Wilson, among others.) Most interesting is Lambert's exploration in chapter 7 of Constable's notion of artistic heritage. Lambert posits that Constable's lectures "set out the 'chain of art' to which Constable felt attached" (176). Here again the reader is brought into Constable's world and back out again—a pattern that Lambert carefully develops throughout the study. In each chapter, the author synthesizes a vast body of literature, positing connections between Constable and his predecessors—including Joshua Reynolds, third Earl of Shaftesbury, and Leon Battista Alberti—that are concisely presented and accessible to a wide readership. The volume's breadth can also be measured by the handling of these sources. The literature review, for example (in chapter 1 and the scant treatment in endnote and bibliographic material), alerts the reader to the work of several other scholars. Lambert confidently refutes seminal arguments posited by Michael Rosenthal, John Barrell, and Ann Bermingham— art historians who have spurred a generation of scholarly inquiry.

Lambert fails to consider, however, two key works related to his study. Chief among these is Kay Dian Kriz's The Idea of the English Landscape Painter: Genius as Alibi in the Early Nineteenth Century (1997), a thorough examination that makes plain the English configuration of artistic "genius" as a formula that worked in opposition to the French school of painting—an act that resulted in the construction of landscape as the quintessential expression of English artistic genius. These are areas that Lambert should have acknowledged. A second omission is the retrospective mounted at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais (Paris, 7 October 2002–13 January 2003). The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue, Constable: le choix de Lucian Freud (2002), provided German-born British painter Lucian Freud his curatorial debut as well as opportunity to re-view Constable through his own selection of works...


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