The American Scholar

Lives of the Artists

ELEGY LANDSCAPES: Constable and Turner and the Intimate Sublime


Norton, 272 pp., $29.95

ELeGY LANDSCAPeS IS a delicately wrought meditation on the effect of the loss of loved ones on two painters of genius, John Constable and Joseph Mallord William Turner. There is something odd, even startling about the study of such a particular aspect of two 18th-century lives, however trimly composed and relatively succinct. Who has the time nowadays for a rapturous contemplation of the abstruse? Even to ask this of a reader takes bravura, not to mention the patience needed for such an inquiry.

Stanley Plumly, however, has received praise for his “obsessive, intricate, intimate 2008) and is as well regarded for his poetry as for his scrutiny of lives. Here he has chosen to explore two distinctly different personalities afflicted by a common tragedy and how this, as he sees it, changed each of them as artists. To begin with, there is Constable, who depicted scenes close by his Suffolk village, outlining each leaf with almost claustrophobic exactitude. Then there is the peripatetic Turner, whose wanderings took him far and wide, eschewing the familiar in pursuit of shimmering space and vast, soaring seas.

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