The poetry of art

The first thing you notice is the astonishing blue. It is a woman’s dress, with a luminous life of its own, a bright heart bursting out of a pale pink shell, made of the same colours as the blue sky, flushed pale carmine by the setting sun. Darkling, she “cannot see what flowers are at her feet, /Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs”. She has a woman’s head, but her body looks more like an exotic blue flower, a lady elf transforming from gordian to woman’s shape. Her dark curling hair might be part of a tree’s foliage.

gainsborough ladybate-dudley1787Lady Bate-Dudley, oil on canvas c.1787. © Tate. Her husband, Sir Henry, known as the Fighting Parson, was a loyal friend and supporter of Gainsborough; he also wrote comic operas. The Bate-Dudleys seem to have inhabited a surprisingly passionate landscape of their own.

Viewed as late 18th century society portraiture, Gainsborough’s painting of Lady Bate-Dudley is disconcerting, being far more about abstract colour and light than the status of the sitter; as poetry of art, it perfectly evokes states of mind painted in words by Keats.

Gainsborough was a poetic painter, Keats the most painterly of poets in an age inspired by unbounded imaginative affinities. Keats’ liquid imagery was as often in danger of dripping from his verse as Gainsborough’s oil-diluted colours from his palette. They were both attracted to contrasts of the tenderness of “embalmed darkness”[1] and the “silvery splendour”[2] of light; “the depths of twilight and the dews and pearls of the morning” that John Constable identified as the essence of Gainsborough’s landscape.[3]

In one of his Hampstead lectures, Constable declared: “chiarascuro, colour, and composition, are all poetic qualities”. Keats composed To Autumn after seeing a rosy-hued stubble plain looking “warm – in the same way that some pictures look warm”. [4] Constable recognized his own joyful identification with nature in the emotions of Milton’s Adam, “his eyes opening for the first time on the wonders of the animate and inanimate world”, [5] the same fragrant, smiling landscape in Paradise Lost where the spiritual passage of waking to find “all real, as the dream” struck Keats as analogous to the “Imagination and its empyreal reflection”.[6]

CT239A Hayfield near East Bergholt at Sunset by John Constable. Oil on paper. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
“….barrèd clouds bloom the soft-dying day/ And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue…”
(Keats: Ode to Autumn)

In Constable’s paintings, the transition from objective description to personal declaration of feeling is imperceptible; his ego is nowhere to be found. He has the quality which Keats called “Negative Capability”. He saw a chain of art, as Keats saw the march of Intellect, minds that “leave other in contrary directions, traverse each other in Numberless points, and [at] last greet each other at the Journeys end”.[7] Constable advised young painters to study old masters – no great painter could have existed without them – but not to imitate them, which produces mannerism. “When I sit down to make a sketch from nature, the first thing I try to do is, to forget I have ever seen a picture”.[8]

ClaudeLorrainSeaportwiththeEmbarkationofSaintUrsula wiki versionClaude’s Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula, oil on canvas, 1641. National Gallery London.
Image source: Wikipedia
“….in no other picture have I seen the evanescent character of light so well expressed.” John Constable, Second Lecture at the Royal Institution, 1836

Constable’s process recalls Keats’ training of himself in poetry, shedding imitations while still learning from great poets, all the while trying to be passive and receptive on the “voyage of conception”, the flower, not the bee, producing works of art that leave the reader or viewer in the “Luxury of twilight”, with the feeling of remembered experiences, their “own highest thoughts”.[9]

Turner_Ovid_Banished_from_RomeTurner’s Ovid Banished from Rome, 1838. The Athenaeum.
Image source: Wikipedia

[1] Keats, Ode to a Nightingale.
[2] Keats, Hyperion, Book III
[3] Constable describing Gainsborough’s landscape, C.R. Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, Composed Chiefly of His Letters (1843), Phaidon, London, 1951, p322.
[4] Letters of John Keats, a selection edited by Robert Gittings, OUP, 1970, p291
[5] Constable, Memoirs, 329
[6] Keats, Letters, 37
[7] Letters, 66
[8] Constable, Memoirs, 279
[9] Keats, Letters, 65, 70

looking at the poetry of John Keats on the chain of art



9 comments on “The poetry of art

  1. […] Gainsborough’s The Morning Walk (1785) […]


  2. […] on a maiden’s cheek, the scent of rose petals and the sweetness of strawberries with cream, a poetic dream of love, the silken negligée strewn on the candle-lit bed, the colour of a coquettish tongue, the […]


  3. […] early nineteenth century aesthetics exists in a range of styles and forms, so you see it in both Gainsborough’s lyricism and the showy drama of Thomas Lawrence’s portraits, where society men and women pose like […]


  4. olganm says:

    What an amazing post. And thanks to First Night Design for the reblog.


  5. An interesting post. Well done. I think of Keats’ autumn walk at this time of year and the marvelous poem that resulted from it.


  6. That’s exactly what I kept doing.


  7. beetleypete says:

    Got to agree with Sarah, a fascinating idea.
    That blue dress is indeed startling. I keep scrolling back up, to admire the colour.
    Best wishes, Pete.


  8. Beautifully expressed. It’s fascinating to see the connection between art and poetry. I’ll reblog it tomorrow. xx


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