Concepts of Realism in relation to the Landscape Paintings of John Constable

Kwok, Yin Ning 郭燕寧
Supervisor: Prof. G.M. Thomas

The understanding of realism in art has been multi-faceted and constantly changing over time and in various cultures. In approaching realism, all of the divergent understandings have generated an extremely high level of complexity and obscurity. The great variety of opinions about what constitutes realism over the last two centuries has made it especially problematic to sort out exactly what is meant by ‘realism.’

Based on the assumption that there is no single, fixed definition of realism, this thesis examines the complexity of realism as a concept in painting by proposing a five-dimensional approach. This approach suggests that there are five fundamental, distinct, and dissimilar perspectives through which realism has been understood. The five perspectives are: (1) the dimension of the represented, which concerns what is represented in a painting; (2) the dimension of the method, which concerns the methods, approach, or techniques adopted by a painter to represent the represented; (3) the dimension of the picture, which centers on the painting itself as an object or as a representational system presenting specific pictorial cues; (4) the dimension of the viewing process, carried out by the spectator when viewing a painting; and (5) the dimension of the experienced, which deals with the effects or feelings experienced by the spectator in the process of viewing a painting.

The first chapter of the thesis lays out this five-dimensional model, based on a detailed analysis of six theories of realism in art presented by Leon Battista Alberti, Ernst Gombrich, Nelson Goodman, Michael Fried, Svetlana Alpers, and Norman Bryson. Three subsequent chapters then focus on writings about John Constable, whose landscape paintings are widely considered landmarks in the development of realism in Western art. Each chapter analyzes the diverse approaches to realism found in critical and historical writings of a particular period, beginning with Constable’s contemporaries in 1802 and stretching to the present.

By combining these theoretical and historical forms of analysis, the thesis argues that the five-dimensional approach helps systematically explain and clarify the complexity and sophistication of the scholarship on both Constable and realism. It also helps us understand in what ways all the dissimilar approaches adopted by scholars in analyzing Constable’s realism are interrelated, especially in exploring both the processes of art making and the processes of art receiving. By embracing highly diverse approaches to realism in scholarly writings about Constable, the five-dimensional model helps us learn more about the ways in which people have conceptualized and interpreted art in European culture.