Tucked away in the small college town of Williamstown, MA is the world-renowned Clark Art Institute; known for its prominent permanent collection of artwork and vast natural landscape. A significant portion of these works are paintings, drawings, and prints by English contemporaries J.M.W. Turner and John Constable. A limited-time exhibition, including works owned by the museum as well as loans from a variety of other New England institutions, is titled Turner and Constable: The Inhabited Landscape and showcases similar themes between the two painters, specifically how they depicted an assortment of foreign and familiar landscape and seascape scenes.
Unlike most shows, this extensive exhibition holds the viewer’s attention by displaying artwork in an order that accentuates specific parts of the lives of Turner and Constable, rather than using the works as merely an accompaniment to their life stories. This way, the pieces are able to tell the story.
Turner is most known for his expressively dramatic paintings, often of fiery boats near the shore. One remarkable piece that is no exception to this description is “Rockets and Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water” (1840).
“Rockets and Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water” (1840) by J.M.W. Turner
In this scene, viewers are on the beach in the foreground, watching a sinking steamboat in the distance. Meanwhile, rockets are fired from the nearby land to show how close the boat is to shore. Steam rises towards the right and a storm arrives from the left, both closing in on the once-blue sky. The direction of the brushstrokes and the light coming from the rockets, as well as its reflection in the water, make for a chaotic seascape.
Another memorable painting is “Dedham Vale from the Road to East Bergholt, Sunset” (1810) by John Constable. Unlike Turner, who traveled around Europe often and painted his destinations, Constable captured many scenes from his own home in Suffolk, England.
“Dedham Vale from the Road to East Bergholt, Sunset” (1810) by John Constable
A colorful sky gives its reminding light to the vast land’s inhabitants, including a man to the far right using a walking stick. As an oil sketch for another canvas, Constable did not put too much detail into “Dedham Vale.” The walking man is only a couple of small brushstrokes of color to just suggest a figure, and even the trees and shrubs barely have a distinct form. By including so many figures (more are shown to the left), Constable shows the connection these inhabitants have with the land on which they live.
The Clark always does a spectacular job of creating a welcoming atmosphere for its visitors. One effective tactic is giving enough space for museumgoers to walk around the exhibit and enjoy the artwork, as well as the open setup instead of implementing one single way of going through the show. This way viewers are able to easily revisit works, especially since the curators intended to compare several of them.
If you find yourself in the westernmost part of Massachusetts over spring break, head over to the Clark Art Institute to view Turner and Constable: The Inhabited Landscape before it ends on Mar. 10, 2019. Free admission with a valid Simmons ID.