I came across this quote recently by the English landscape painter John Constable (1776-1837):
I never saw an ugly thing in my life: for let the form of an object be what it may, — light, shade, and perspective will always make it beautiful.
Making allowance for some exaggeration (during his life Constable must have looked at something and pronounced it a disagreeable sight), it looks to me like he’s modeling a certain kind of attention. I imagine him taking a step back from the object itself, and focusing instead on those aspects, like light, shade and perspective, that contribute to the object’s appearance in the moment.
The quote also invites me to contemplate what ugliness actually is, and if it’s in the eye of the beholder, as we’ve been told is the case with beauty. Thinking along these lines, I discovered the existence of The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I’ve found for you entries on Beauty and on Aesthetic Judgment, in case you want to explore.
In the meantime, I’ve gathered up some of the beauty that John Constable created himself:
Not all of Constable’s paintings were landscapes. Here’s an impressive seascape called His Majesty’s Ship “Victory”, Capt. E. Harvey, in the Memorable Battle of Trafalgar between two French Ships of the Line
He also painted portraits, which he found rather dull. That opinion didn’t hamper him from doing a fine job, though:
Apparently, he also did a certain amount of religious art. In his 1979 volume on Constable, John Walker had this to say on the subject:
“Constable’s incapacity as a religious painter cannot be overstated.”
Somehow, that statement has a mighty cheering effect, and that’s not schadenfreude. After seeing all of these remarkable paintings, it’s a good reminder that there were kinds of paintings that he didn’t do as well. I’m sure that his worst canvases surpassed the best works of many other artists. But it’s nice to recognize that Constable was human, and did some things better than others.
[Images: all from Wikipedia except Arundel Mill and Castle, from Wikiart.org]