A Dream of Reason- IV. Part 3 …A Working Paper in the Sociology-Psychology…and Apendixes

John Constable’s Orientational Reconstruction of the Art of Landscape Painting: A Working Paper in the Sociology-Psychology of Disciplinary Positions (1965)

1. Opening

            In this essay we explore “framework” and “orientational reconstruction” through John Constable’s contribution to the art of landscape painting[1].

2.Generative problematic


            Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723 – 1792), first president of the British Royal Academy remarks that

The beginning, the middle, and the end of everything that is valuable in taste is comprised in the knowledge of what is truly nature. (1961, 111)

He notes that some young students consider Rembrandt’s art with its close observation of particulars and insight into individual character more natural and, hence, better than that of Raphael.

But a very little reflection will serve to show us that these particulars cannot be nature; for how can that be the nature of man in which no two individuals are the same. (111)

Art requires thematically oriented abstraction:

Perfect form is produced by leaving out particulars and retaining only general ideas…this principle…extends itself to every part of the Art;…it gives what is called the grand style to Invention, to Composition, to Expression, and even to Colour and Drapery. (55)

“The grand style’s” generative problematic is to articulate universal human themes (i.e., in Reynolds’ sense “human nature”) through a received tradition of noble “poetic” images in the media of visual art.

A “pictorial language” of landscape symbols developed along side that of human expression. In the art of Claude Gelle, called Lourrain, (1600 – 1682) themes are primarily articulated through landscape.


            For Reynolds as a representative of the grand style, the true artist grounds his painting in noble general ideas and in the loftiest creations of the past. The painter who grounds his work in appearance can never aspire beyond imitation.

Constable (1776 – 1837) reverses the distinction. He contrasts the true artist who forms his work on close observation to those who merely imitate others’ work and style:

The one forms his style upon the study of pictures and produces imitative or eclectic art, as it is termed; the other by a close observation of nature, discovers qualities existing in her which have never been portrayed before, and thus forms a style, which is original. (Gombrich 1960, 175)

For an artist within the grand style, general themes are distinct from and inform particular observations. For Constable nature is composed of particulars and given through observation…. He was particularly concerned to accurately represent the observed nuances of tone and color which, varying from scene to scene and from moment to moment, are categorized as accidental and neglected within the grand style.

Constable states that everything in his art is “subordinate to the one object in view, the embodying of a pure apprehension of a natural effect” (Gowing 1960, 3).

3.The Problem of Abstraction


            Within the grand style the task of abstraction is successfully completed when all is included that clearly, succinctly and gracefully articulates a personal variation on a general theme.

This solution is inappropriate to Constable’s final purpose. His solution to the problem of abstraction must include those unique ephemeral constellations of light, shadow and color in and through which we experience particular scenes.



           Constable abstracts through physical, meteorological and “dynamic” location.


            What is perceivable from a given spot is abstracted from all that is potentially visible in a scene.


            Constable does not attempt to capture in one painting all tones and colors that are under different atmospheric conditions perceivable from a given spot.

Between 1821 and 1822 he painted a series of cloud studies (Leslie 1949, 112; Badt 1950, 41).   Each was accompanied by a notation of the time at which and the atmospheric conditions under which it was painted, for example:

5th of September, 1822. Ten o’clock, morning, looking south-east, brisk wind at west. Very bright and fresh clouds running fast over a yellow bed, about half way in the sky. Very appropriate to the coast of Osmington. (Leslie 112)


            Constable remarks, “we see nothing truly until we understand it” (Leslie 337). He comments on a landscape by Jacob Von Ruisdael (1629 – 1682):

This picture…represents an approaching thaw. The ground is covered with snow, and the trees are still white; but there are two windmills near the center; the one has the sails furled, and is turned in the position from which the wind blew when the mill left off work; the other has the canvas on the poles, and is turned another way, which indicates a change in the wind; the clouds are opening in that direction which appears by the glow in the sky to be the south (the sun’s winter habitation in our hemisphere), and this change will produce a thaw before the morning. The concurrence of these circumstances shows that Ruisdael understood what he was painting. (Leslie 337-38)

He comments along these lines on one of his own paintings:

It may perhaps give some idea of one of those bright and silvery days in the spring, when at noon large garish clouds surcharged with hail or sleet sweep with their broad shadows the fields, woods and hills and by their depths enhance the value of the vivid greens and yellows so peculiar to this season. (Leslie 24)

An image in painting is inherently static. Yet Constable envisions static images historically/dynamically (Badt 63).

The Problem of Total Coloristic Integration

Benjamin West (1738 – 1820), President of The Royal Academy when Constable attended as a student, describes Claude’s general technique of coloristic integration:

Claude began his pictures by laying in simple gradations of flat colours from the Horizon to the top of the Sky – and from the Horizon to the Foreground, without putting clouds into the sky or specific forms into the landscape till he had fully settled these gradations. When he had fully satisfied himself in this respect, he painted in his forms, by that means securing a due gradation – from the Horizontal line to the top of his sky – and from the Horizontal line to the Foreground…all ‘positive’ color was avoided, even to the draperies of the figures.” (Gombrich 44-46)

Constable remarks:

It will be difficult to name a class of landscape in which the sky is not the keynote, the standard of scale…. (Gowing 1)

He did not establish coloristic integration through pre-established formula.

The constellation of tone and color through which a particular scene is perceptually integrated was first established through a series of oil studies painted “directly from nature” (Badt 91-2).

These “notes” were then integrated twice. Constable first painted a full-scale study and then the final large painting (Badt 43-5, 91-2).[2] Constable’s dynamic understanding of the scene enabled him to increase the scale of his composition with minimum sacrifice of freshness and nuance (Clark 1961, 80).

Constable’s application of juxtaposed areas of unmixed colors, “the broken touches and flecks of pure white with a palette knife” (76), exercised “a decisive influence on French painting” (idem).

5.A Dream of Science


Painting is a science…. Why, then, may not landscape be considered as a branch of natural philosophy of which pictures are but the experiments. (Gombrich 33)

The natural history, if the expression may be used, of the skies…is this; the clouds accumulate in very large masses and from their loftiness seem to move but slowly; immediately upon these large clouds appear numerous opaque patches, which are only small clouds passing rapidly before them…. These float midway in what may be termed the lanes of clouds; and from being so situated are almost uniformly in shadow, receiving a reflected light only, from the clear blue sky immediately above them…. (Leslie 24)

He copied out a quotation from Gilbert White:

System can by no means be thrown aside. Without system the field of nature would be a pathless wilderness; but system should be subservient to, not the main object of, our pursuit. (Leslie 290)

Constable’s conception of science differs from that of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton (Burtt 1932)…. Its sources include Greek medicine and the writings of Francis Bacon. As a continuous tradition it is designated “natural history.”

6.A Conclusion in Process

         Constable’s framework is not a development of ideal landscape. It is a reconstruction. This reconstruction was influenced by the scientific tradition of natural history.

 Appendix I: On Neoclassicism, Personal Expression and Modernity (1996)



             Constable directly confronted “the grand style.” His framework also challenges thematic art qua thematic art.

The grand style is a species of   thematic art. It proceeds within historical interpretations of “classical decorum.” The grand style is neoclassicism.


             The emphasis on universal themes and intergenerational continuity in neoclassicism does not preclude individuality, originality and historical sensitivity…. No art is entirely unique. (Thus, one refers not only to neoclassicism but also to impressionism, cubism, etc.)

Even if we leave out the role of the classical revival in the Renaissance [e.g., in Botticelli (1444 – 1510) and Raphael (1483 – 1520)], the recognized masters of neoclassicism from Annibale Carracci (1560 – 1604), Nicholas Poussin (1594 – 1665) and Claude Lourrain to Jacque Louis David (1745 – 1825) and Jean Dominique Ingres (1786 – 1867), were original wonderful artists.


            It appears at first glance that neoclassicism and modern art were simply and unambiguously opposed. There is a revisionist tendency to deny contradictions. We suggest that though the contradiction between neoclassicism and the successive waves of modernism (e.g., Courbet’s “common sense” naturalism, impressionism, post-impressionism) was real, their interpenetration was also real.

David and the anti-classicist Goya (1746 – 1828) were arguably the (mutually independent) co-founders of modern politically engaged painting. – David exerted an immediate influence on Baron Gros (1771 – 1835) and thus, despite himself, on romanticism. – Cezanne desired “to do Poussin over after nature” (Clark, 1949, p. 219). – Ingres’ sensitivity to harmony and subtle discords of design (his lyrical grace of line and purity of contour) were crucial to Degas, Seurat (Clark 134- 36), and beyond [e.g., through Seurat to Juan Gris (Clark 215)]. Puvis de Chavannes (1824 – 1898), a minor artist, produced an authentic yet impersonal “generic” neoclassicism (as though purposely designed for incorporation into other styles) that influenced Gauguin…. Picasso’s relationship to neoclassicism was both crucial and ambivalent. He would at once complete, transcend and annihilate it.

There is a resonance of neoclassicism in all “western” thematic art that claims generically human resonance.

Appendix II: Jean Dominique Ingres and the Final Crisis of Neoclassicism (1996)



            Classical art outlived its Greek generative order of life. It even outlived belief in the myths and gods it celebrated.

Neoclassicism – surviving on and on without a “local habitation” – asserted species relevance…. It lives within the species or is homeless.


            Romanticism’s orientalism challenged the neoclassical claim to universality by exposing neoclassicism as Eurocentric, a merely local constellation inadequate to human diversity.


            We suggest that neoclassicism (despite its struggle to integrate beauty with truth and goodness, and its commitment to “received themes and shapes”) prefigured “art for art’s sake” and “pure abstraction.”



            The tensions of a neoclassicism wounded to the point of dissolution through extended conflict with romanticism, “common sense realism” and “particularistic naturalism” were (without being explicitly confronted) held in fruitful balance by Jean Dominique Ingres. Ingres’ art (categorized in his own time as reactionary) has exerted an enduring influence on modernity (again and again revealing new facets as new artistic possibilities open).

            The smooth surface of Ingres’ work disguised and sustained an equal passion for pure design and for received structures. [Ingres could not as Picasso later did permit lust for expressive form to “melt” arms and legs into boneless tentacles. He respected the “functional” rigidities of human anatomy (also of artifacts).]


            In Le Bain Turc neoclassicism through Ingres asserts relevance to oriental themes and to Eros. Kenneth Clark’s comment on this work suggests Ingres’ surprising elusiveness:

The decade in which Le Bain Turk was painted may be reckoned the high-water mark of the nineteenth century prudery, and perhaps only M. Ingres, the “petit elephant bourgeois,” with his seat in the academy, his frock coat, and his absurdly orthodox opinions could have persuaded public opinion to accept so open an evocation of eroticism. (1956, 161)

The abstract play of forms does not lose itself within this play of bodies. It triumphs.


            Ingres represented neoclassicism within nineteenth century discontinuities (almost as an ideal aristocrat would represent his people and their order of life). Hilaire Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917), Ingres natural successor, abdicated to become an explicit modernist. 

Appendix III: On Nature, Autonomy and Subordination in Modern Visual Art (1965, 1996)

The final purposes of neoclassicism and Constable’s particularistic naturalism share a commitment to “translate” nature into visual images. The concept of nature has not traditionally been controlled by art.

Through its one-sided dependence on the concept “nature” art is vulnerable to external domination and self-loss.

The grand style reworks Plato’s critique of art. In this version the artist is not condemned to trace shadows and copy surfaces. S/he stands beside – or replaces – the philosopher. Through intuition (talent and genius) cultivated by humanistic education artists can enter direct dialogue with beauty and truth.

Constable conceives landscape painting as a “science” of particular constellations that proceeds through careful observation and articulates itself through visual images. He interprets science for the sake of art.

Art, always endangered, works upon all external influences to comprehend and fulfill its autonomous desires.


We hypothesize that a central dynamic of modern art proceeds through vulnerability to external influence and the struggle against this vulnerability.[3] Art asserts autonomy by attempts to re-interpret external traditions and/or “capture” the concept of nature in its disciplinary relevance and/or disassociate from “nature.”

Hopefully the sociology-psychology of art – and more generally of disciplinary positions – can be integrated along these lines with the sociology-psychology of unequal power relationships and of “identity.”

Appendix IV: On Sociology, Psychology, Science and Subordination (1996)

            The sociology-psychology of disciplinary positions naturally opens dialogue with itself.

The concept of science is controlled by natural science (directly and through the mediation of neo-positivist philosophy). If you doubt this, propose sociology as the ideal science on which physics should model itself and note the response…. Also note constant reference to sociology and psychology as “immature” and/or “developing” sciences.

What physicists, chemists and biologists do “in role” exemplifies science (in that sense “defines it”). Sociologists and psychologists are recognized as scientists in so far as their procedures and outcomes resemble those of natural science.

We suggest that in so far as sociologists and psychologists proceed from an unexamined commitment to a scientific identity they choose a voluntary servitude, an unforced colonization. They evade the most crucial task of any learned profession, the discovery/invention of its autonomous disciplinary potentialities.


[1] Our discussion of Constable is along lines opened by Ernest Gombrich

[2] It is a finished work by Constable, The Haywain, which, upon its exhibition in Paris, led Delacroix to re-paint the background of his Massacre of Scio in brighter more vibrant colors.

[3] Another dynamically relevant problem constellation is the struggle to preserve permanence in change, unity in diversity – a recognizable vital humanity – within the breakdown of this order of life.


Exert from A Dream of Reason by Avron Soyer, Continue Reading A Dream of Reason V.On Social Structural Positions: Variations On a Theme by Karl Mannheim


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Writings and Interviews by Avron Soyer

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