By: Patricia Rosoff

Yale Center for British Art • New Haven, CT • • Through March 10, 2013

Mark Leonard, Constable Study II, 2011, gouache and synthetic resin on panel, 9 x 12". Collection of Mark Leonard.
Mark Leonard, Constable Study II, 2011, gouache and synthetic
resin on panel, 9 x 12″. Collection of Mark Leonard.

Mark Leonard’s artistic meditation on eleven of John Constable’s wonderful studies of clouds are at a considerable stylistic remove from their inspiration, a factor that makes them all the more successful when viewed cheek by jowl in the beautifully lit galleries of the Yale Center for British Art. The parallels are clear, but instructive: First of all these are, in the truest sense, studies. Both artists worked in the first-hand presence of his inspiring motif. Each sought to translate that experience, it might be said, creating a visual language to express it.

At a time when landscape painters constructed their careful views in the accommodating facility of their studios, and in anticipation of the impressionists who would follow, Constable conducted his investigations of light and mist en plein air. At a historical moment when naturalists were first giving names to the various cloud formations that he painted, he concentrated not only on their form, but also on their affect—the momentary glimmer, or glower, that gives perceptive life.

Leonard distills Constable’s ephemerality, reducing it to purities of essentially graphic form. As delicate as they are mathematical, each of his pictures articulates a particular matrix of color and shape, executed in near-molecular touches. Each of Leonard’s studies hews carefully to the scale and proportion of the original, and even avoids Constable’s definition of the sublime (awe in front of nature) with another, more contemporary one (universal form).

In the midst of Leonard’s cerebral investigation, however, what also delights are the apocrypha worthy of the passionate, transfigured scribe. Wonderfully, the white borders of some of his preliminary studies retain the ruled pencil marks of his analysis, giving viewers a hint of his patient homage, his care and his process peeking from behind the perfection of his finished images.

Taken at face value, Mark Leonard’s taut, dry, geometric celebrations of shape and color could not be further removed from John Constable’s dancing, juicy, freeform evocations of light and atmosphere. Separated by nearly three centuries, each artist responds to his own passionate enthusiasms—Constable’s romantic grasp for the sublime experience of nature and Leonard’s modernist hunger for the purity and stripped-base essentials of pure form.

—Patricia Rosoff

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