Bill's Art Box

"The Art of Landscape Painting" - An Essay





Created under Professor Gillian Brown 


The Art of Landscape Painting:


Seeing the Infinite in the Works of John Constable

             and Tom Thompson                  





 "Painting is but another word for feeling."  


- John Constable








Landscape painting has been a pursuit of mankind since the dawn of civilization. Each natural setting has its own precise mix of man, animal, terrain and abode. Cave painters focused their art on the animals which inhabited their daily hunts. Chinese landscapists kept the chronicle of another important venture – the search for personal enlightenment. "My longing for the notes of a flute is answered in the murmurings of the gorge", wrote the poet/ painter Shen Zou in 1500 A.D. More recently, Claude Monet, in the nineteenth century, employed the fine vision of "Impressionism" to capture the self-effulgent light of the French countryside.










In this present examination, the art of John Constable -- the English landscape master -- and that of Tom Thomson, who inspired the Canadian Impressionist painters known as "The Group of Seven", is explored and compared. Thoughts on these artists and their works is shared first; and then a formal comparison is attempted -- in color, in composition, and in other areas. Lastly, references to critical comment on the two offered artworks is set down.


Landscape painting is the exploration of the outer world by the creative intelligence of the inner man. It is, in that, a point of union of art and living, and thus holds within its beauty a restorative role for the world-weary soul of modern society.



John Constable


John Constable, born on June 11, 1776, was a master painter of the beauty of nature. The rural life of England -- experienced while growing up in his home village of Dedham Vale in Suffolk -- became his later passion.


"I should paint my own places best", Constable expressed while writing to his friend John Fisher in 1821. Working in the style of the English Romantic painters, he began first in his youth to sketch the surrounding countryside. "The sound of water escaping from mill dams etc., willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts, and brickwork ... I love such things."


Constable was inspired especially by works of Thomas Gainsborough, Claude Lorain, Peter Paul Rubens, Annibale Carracci and Jacob van Ruisdael. His special addition to the Romantic painting of his day was the social aspect of rural country scenes -- not just the wild terrains prevalent at that time, but also farms, villages and people became his studies.


Constable once humbly described the special subject matter of his paintings -- the everyday detail of country life -- thus: "My limited and abstracted art is to be found under every hedge, and in every lane ...". His study of the science of meteorology challenged Constable also to include in his paintings the skies full of towering clouds for which he is especially known.


"I am determined to conquer all difficulties, and that most arduous one among the rest." (Wikipedia)


It is the sweetness of these rural scenes -- civilization in its primal stage --which has kept John Constable's works honored and adored for more than two centuries.







 "The Hay Wain"




In "The Hay Wain", a farmer and his son are bringing home the wagon (wain) after a morning of haying. The bright stucco walls -- shadowed by the surrounding sentinel trees -- must, we feel, house a country meal ready for enjoyment. Silver and green reflections spread across the mill creek which laps almost to the cottage door. Skies that could support an army of guardian angels hover above, in dark grey undershadows and startling whites. A country vista spreads to a gorgeous distance for us to embrace.


"Life is found in layers", Vedic knowledge tells us. In the imbedded security and warmth of this scene, sky reigns over countryside ... and a home heralds happily the coming of afternoon. As still as the waiting farm dog, we behold life at it's most beautiful -- in the serene vision of a country-dweller, and of a lover of nature and man both.



 Tom Thomson


A fore-runner to the famous "Group of Seven" artists of Canada, Tom Thomson (August 5, 1877 – July 8, 1917) was a painter of northern wilderness. Working as a guide in Ontario's vast Algonquin Park, and then as a full-time artist, Thomson created images which were in the style of  European Impressionism, yet which were surcharged with the spirit of stark beauty that is northern Canada.


Thomson met his seven colleagues and fellow chroniclers of nature at its most rugged in Toronto, at the artistic design firm where they were commonly employed. The "Group of Seven" artists that were to out-survive Thomson were A.Y. Jackson 1, Frank Johnston 2, Arthur Lismer 3, Franklin Carmichael 4, Frederick Varley 5, J.E.H. MacDonald 6 and Lawrence Harris 7. Each of these craftsmen was to go on to find individual fame.




















Thomson began, in 1912, to make several trips to Algonquin Park -- carrying small rectangular panels to work on -- to capture scenes from the forests and lakes he found there. Hundreds of these sketches are now located in the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto, and in the National Gallery of Canada, in Ottawa, and elsewhere in Canada.





 "Northern River" 




The deep reds and the oranges of late autumn lay low to the ground in "Northern River". Pines stand like charcoal etchings against a yellow morning sky. Soon winter will arrive in thick drifts to cover the rugged lands of Algonquin Park with snow, and its rivers with ice.


Gone here is the clamor of humanity, a hundred miles from "civilization". Moose reign here, not man. Black bear fish for trout with opened claws; the cry of  timber wolves is the wild society of the night.


Paint lies thick and raucous in this stolen glimpse of a stolen land. Other brushes have claimed rights to these waters. A white man is but a tenant here, or a guest. Yet an artist must record beauty, even borrowed.


And all beauty is borrowed, even by the First Peoples, from the great Creator of the "Northern River". 




A Comparison of the Work of John Constable and Tom Thomson



In the 100 years since the creation of "The Hay Wain", much had happened to artistic vision to result in the broad strokes and wild hatchings that compose "Northern River". The studied realism of John Constable had given way to the no-less-beautiful divinations of Tom Thomson's brush. A tumult of emotions is unleashed in artist and viewer by the sheer wildness of Canada's landscape. The world truly is as we are -- full of bliss, for any artist to seize. Yet these emotions -- in control for John Constable -- are for Tom Thomson literally blasting with the ecstasy of creation. In his wild solitude, he is laid open, like Thoreau, to a kinship with his subject. Paint cannot flow quickly enough -- how many strokes, or how few, does it take to paint unity?


John Constable, using the same paint, achieves heightened order and high emotion quite differently. Not peering, as does Thomson, from within a forest veil but perched as it seems on an open hillside, Constable surveys his realm ... then paints. It is said, indeed, that Constable needed the assistance of a contemporary to create the perfection that is the formal composition of "The Hay Wain". Foreground mesmerizes us in secure themes -- home, and returning thereto -- while in rapid sequence our hearts are torn away, then, to travel over beckoning fields in visual pursuit of the next farm, and the next, now just specks in the green distance. Likewise, trees, in recurring layers, carry us further yet ... all the way to the last ridgeline, which plays concert to the crush of a cloudy sky.


In contrast to this detail, Tom Thomson's skies are a mottled haze, vibrating about the twigs and limbs of bare evergreen trunks. Yellow sunlight, like icing, enhances a tapestry of dead wood, dried fern and orange straw. No perfection is here, except that of the glory-bound painter. Crazy sticks crisscross in the air, and even the upright pines wiggle across the reflecting water. Yet the effect of untamed wilderness transports us, equal to Constable, to that hidden stump or log on which Thomson sits. God that we were there! ... to hear the loon, and to ply the clear water with our paddle.


An English country panorama and a Canadian forest. Two views in the timeless art of landscape painting. And yet, two artists painting just one subject -- the glory of Nature!


And in the end the artist and his subject, too -- bound by the talent of accurate rendering -- may merge. Yet one moment before that, hearts might burst with the desire for refined perception. A Canadian and an Englishman -- a print maker and a poet -- will tell that same, ageless story ... one with somber shadows and ancient hues, another with shimmering light, and reds and violets.


Self-taught and apprentice, both, may see the order and the beauty that is present everywhere -- and that demands expression in the art of landscape painting.





  "Group of Seven" Paintings:



1. "The Red Maple" -  A.Y. Jackson

2. "The Dark Woods Interior" - Frank H. Johnston

3. "September Gale" - Arthur Lismer

4. "Autumn Tapestry" - Franklin Carmichael

5. "Stormy Weather" - Georgian Bay

6. "Falls, Montreal River" - J.E.H. MacDonald

7. "Algoma Country" - Lawrence Harris 




References to Artworks in this Report from National Magazines of Countries of their Origin: 



"Northern River"



"The endless tracery of branches in Northern River ... linger with us as a kind of whispering, as a hush that is at least pregnant."


"He could make silence visible. In a painting like Northern River, there is no room for sound. The work is very flatness, and the sobriety of its colours are inimical to anything as impertinent as voice or sigh or birdsong."



Gerald Hannon,  "Sunday in the Park with Tom,"  CanadianArt  (February 20th, 2003) 




"The Hay Wain"



"The sensation it caused and the decisive influence it exerted on subsequent landscape painting in France are well known."









Donate to bring the Transcendental Meditation technique

to Native peoples of North America -






(Video; 2 min.)



Read a poem - "Picture" // my poetry anthology // see an artwork - "My Landscapes" // enjoy an illustrated short story // read another essay // watch a video