Find the narrative within the landscape
'Turner and Constable: The Inhabited Landscape' on view at The Clark
WILLIAMSTOWN — The ocean pounds mercilessly on the shore as a white light streaks through dark skies, a warning to an approaching steamboat's crew that they are dangerously close to the shore.
Barely visible in the lower left hand corner of Joseph Mallord William Turner's "Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water," stands a small group of onlookers, a little closer to the shore is a line of spectators watching the ship. An angry storm swirls in the distance.
The fate of the steamboat is unknown. The viewer, like the painting's spectators, is caught in a single moment.
"That's Turner's way of hooking us, of engaging us, the viewer," said Alexis Goodin, curatorial research associate at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. "This canvas, when it was first exhibited in 1840, confounded the critics. They weren't really sure what was going on. The style of the painting was abstract, very layered. It was very hard to understand [Turner] has given us these figures on the shore, who are encouraging us to look carefully at what is unfolding."
"Rockets and Blue Lights" is one of more than 50 paintings, drawings, watercolors, prints and books that make up the new exhibition, "Turner and Constable: The Inhabited Landscape," on view at The Clark through March 10. The show, curated by Goodwin, explores the importance figures and structures play in the landscapes painted by contemporaries Turner and John Constable. Primarily drawn from the Manton Collection of British Art, the exhibition also includes selections on loan from the Yale Center for British Art and the Chapin Library at Williams College.
"One of the things I've always been drawn to is the narratives within their landscapes — looking at the figures, at the buildings and trying to place those and to understand what those figures mean, both the cultural moment, as well as to the individual artists," Goodin said of Turner and Constable, who were premier landscape painters at the beginning of the 19th century.
In Constable's bucolic countryside painting, "The Wheat Field," fluffy white clouds float above a sea of golden wheat that flows along a backdrop filled with luscious green fields, trees and mountains. There, a small group of women and children, stoop to bundle loose pieces of wheat.
It's an idyllic country scene until the story behind the work is known. The women represent the poorest of the poor, who are "gleaning" wheat left behind by those harvesting it. Gathering the wheat is backbreaking work for the women who gather it, she said. The survival of the women and their families depends on the sustenance provided by the leftovers of the wheat harvest.
"It doesn't speak to the pain of the labor, the bending down for one or two pieces and the feeling the gleaners probably had of 'will this be enough?' You have that backbreaking labor, the heat of the harvest, which is done in August and that monotonous activity," she said. "But it's a beautifully idyllic painting. You don't get that sense of exhaustion, sweat, the flies that buzz around It's beautifully organized, classically presented."
Taking a closer look at the figures, structures and the areas in which the paintings are set can provide new insight and interpretation of each artist's work.
"I did a lot of careful looking and I did a lot of research on social and political changes that were taking place at the time, advancements in maritime safety, changes in farming practices and learned that the figures really tell a rich story," Goodin said.
In Turner's "Saumur from the lle d'Offart, with the Pont Cessart and the Chateau in the Distance," washerwomen spread out laundry to dry while men load cargo onto barges. Once again, the scene is picturesque and shows off the commercial prosperity supposedly being experienced by the region at this time.
"What I'm hoping is that it will show both artists were very aware of their time, of their moment and included aspects of their personal journeys and narratives, their own biographies in their choices of subject," she said. "By including the figures, we can delve deeper into that time period and perhaps because people will see Constable as more sympathetic to the laborer and Turner as, maybe less so, but that's a choice or conclusion they are invited to make on their own after taking a careful look at the work on display."
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