John Constable Biography

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born June 11, 1776 , East Bergholt , Suffolk , Eng.
died March 31, 1837 , London

Painter who, with J.M.W. Turner, dominated English landscape painting in the 19th century. He is famous for his precise and loving paintings of the English countryside (e.g., “The Hay-Wain,” 1821), which he sketched constantly from nature. After about 1828, he experimented with a freer and more colourful manner of painting (e.g., in ” Hadleigh Castle ,” 1829). He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1829.

Early days

Constable’s birthplace was, and remains, a small village, standing on a ridge a short distance from the River Stour, which separates Suffolk from Essex . The Stour valley in this region is rich in wheat, pastureland, and fine trees and was known in the late 18th century for its efficient agriculture and its natural beauty. The men of Suffolk felt a jealous patriotism for their own county, and Constable remained at heart a Suffolk man, although he constantly crossed the bridge over the River Stour at Flatford into Essex .

The artist’s father, Golding Constable, was a wealthy man who owned mills at Flatford and Dedham , on the Suffolk and Essex banks of the Stour , respectively. His business consisted of grinding wheat raised in the local fields and shipping it around the coast of East Anglia to the London market. The Stour had been made into a canal, navigable beyond these mills, and the grain was transported on its waters in broad, flat-bottomed barges. The fact that Constable was born into the midst of the practical realities of country life has a direct bearing on his career and is reflected throughout his painting. He showed intellectual promise as a child and was brought up for the church; when this idea was abandoned, he was trained to enter his father’s business. By this time he had already conceived an enthusiasm for painting. This interest was fostered by his friendship with an amateur painter, John Dunthorne, a local plumber and glazier, and was further encouraged by the landscape painter Sir George Beaumont, a patron of the arts. Constable’s determination to make painting his profession was sealed by his acceptance as a probationer in the Royal Academy Schools in 1799, when he was 23.

Artistic development

At this time his performance did not reveal any marked promise; his execution was laboured and his drawing from life weakly academic. But he already had a clear mental image of the type of pictures he wanted to paint and worked doggedly to overcome his technical defects. Seven or eight years after he had started his formal training, he discovered how to embody his idea of the English countryside in a manner both more realistic and more spirited than his predecessors. There were some modest successes to record in this period of self-training. He exhibited at the Royal Academy shows annually from 1802, with one single exception in 1804. He went on two of the sketching expeditions that it was then the practice for landscape painters to undertake, going to the Peak District, Derbyshire, in 1801 and the Lake District in 1806. He painted portraits of the Suffolk and Essex farmers and their wives and in 1805 attempted an altarpiece of “Christ Blessing the Children,” in the manner of the American expatriate painter Benjamin West. When he took stock of his progress after his return from the Lake District , however, he realized that he had been attempting too wide a range of subject and style, thus dissipating his energies. He then determined to concentrate on the scenes that had delighted him as a boy: the village lanes, the fields and meadows running down to the Stour , the slow progress of barges drawn by tow horses, the bustle of vessels passing the locks at Flatford or Dedham .

In the years 1809 to 1816 he established his mastery and evolved his individual manner; but these were years of personal stress. He was obliged to live much of each year in London , where his professional associates were to be found and where he could participate in exhibitions. Constable was uneasy at these enforced absences from the countryside, in which he felt most at home, and tried to pay yearly visits to Suffolk . The assiduity with which he studied the landscape on these visits is shown by two pocket sketchbooks, one of 1813 and one of 1814, which are still intact. These contain between them more than 200 small sketches made in a limited area around his home village and reflect most aspects of the summer life of the fields and the river.

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Deeper than the strain of exile from these scenes was the unhappy progress of his courtship of Maria Bicknell, with whom he had fallen in love in 1809 but whose grandfather, the elderly and tyrannical rector of East Bergholt , opposed her marriage to an impecunious artist. Nevertheless, Constable stuck to his purpose with a tenacity equal to that which he displayed in his art, and, in her non-aggressive way, Maria was just as determined. A further anxiety for Constable came from the failing health of his parents; his mother died in 1815 and his father the following year. He was genuinely devoted to them and spent prolonged periods at home during their illnesses. His father’s death in 1816 provided a sufficient measure of economic independence for him to marry Maria Bicknell and to settle into the domestic life that was a prerequisite for his calm development and the full maturing of his art.

Once he had married, on Oct. 2, 1816 , and had established himself and his wife in a London home, Constable set to work to show what he could achieve in his art. He was 40 years old and had painted a handful of accomplished pictures, which were original but on a small scale. These included “Dedham Vale: Morning” (1811; Sir Richard Proby Collection, Elton Hall, Huntingdonshire); “Boatbuilding near Flatford Mill” (1815; Victoria and Albert Museum , London ); “The Stour Valley and Dedham Village ” (1815; Museum of Fine Arts , Boston ). These paintings were still products of the years of preparation, however. Most significant was the large number of small oil sketches and drawings that were to form the basis of his future and more ambitious painting. These sketches, of which he made a considerable number after 1808, were painted in the open air in front of the subject. They are most frequently in oils on paper about 12 inches wide, and they record the form of the landscape, the colours that predominate, and also the more evanescent qualities of atmosphere and the reflection of light on particular details. The sketches are now recognized to be among Constable’s most individual achievements and to have been unique at the time they were painted. To the artist, however, they were means to an end. His main ambition was to embody his concept of the Suffolk countryside in a series of larger canvases monumental enough to make an impression in the annual summer exhibitions of the Royal Academy . The first attempt was the “Flatford Mill on the River Stour” which he exhibited in 1817. It shows a reach of the river running up to the mill, in which Golding Constable had lived until within two years of Constable’s birth, bordered by a meadow that has just been scythed.

Mature works

This work was succeeded by a series of six paintings that are now among his best known and most highly regarded works. In order of exhibition they are “The White Horse”; “Stratford Mill”; “The Hay-Wain”; “View on the Stour near Dedham”; “The Lock”; “The Leaping Horse.” These six canvases portray scenes on the River Stour that were easily within the compass of Constable’s childhood walks; between the most easterly, “The Hay-Wain,” and the most westerly, “Stratford Mill,” there is hardly more than two miles distance in a direct line. To this unity of place is joined a unity of subject matter. With the exception of “The Hay-Wain,” all show barges being manoeuvred along the canals. The appearance in these works of the fruits of Constable’s deep, unprecedented study of the formation of clouds, the colour of meadows and trees, and the effect of light glistening on leaves and water enables them to communicate the concrete actuality of these everyday-life country scenes, as well as the feeling they evoked in him.

This series of Stour scenes was interrupted in 1823, when Constable’s chief exhibit was a view of “Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds,” which was intended to be a record of an architectural monument, transmuted into the artist’s own idiom by framing the spire between overarching trees, by emphasizing the play of light and shade on the Gothic stonework, and by setting the whole under a sky in which rain is impending. This romantic treatment did not please the Bishop but was admired by the Bishop’s nephew and Constable’s old friend, Archdeacon John Fisher, who had already shown his faith in the artist by buying “The White Horse” at the exhibition of 1819.

A revealing correspondence between Constable and Bishop Fisher-who commissioned the painting of the Salisbury Cathedral-has been preserved. In it the painter gives his most intimate thoughts on his art without concealment or false modesty. There was much he could be satisfied with at this time. He was aware that he had achieved in his art a great deal of what he had set out to do. In addition, his work had deeply impressed the painters of the French Romantic school. Théodore Géricault had admired “The Hay-Wain” on its first exhibition in 1821; and when this work (along with the “View on the Stour near Dedham “) was shown at the Paris Salon in 1824, it not only created a sensation but inspired Eugène Delacroix to repaint parts of his “Massacre at Chios .” In England recognition was slower in coming. Although Constable had been made an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1819, full membership was delayed for 10 years.

Meanwhile the presence, from 1819, of Hampstead scenes and, from 1824, of Brighton scenes among his repertoire of subjects indicates a deepening shadow over his domestic happiness. Mrs. Constable had long been delicate, and Constable took houses in these places in search of purer air. Her death from consumption in 1828, at the age of 41, was a loss from which he never fully recovered, though he bestirred himself into activity for the sake of his seven children, in whom he delighted. His financial situation had been eased by a large legacy from his father-in-law, but from this time an increased restlessness is to be found in his paintings. ” Hadleigh Castle ” and “Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows” show his growing recourse to broken accents of colour, sombre tones, and stormy skies. It was in 1829 also that he began his preparations for the publication of English Landscape Scenery, a selection of mezzotints executed by David Lucas from Constable’s paintings and sketches in which the same dramatic qualities of light and shade are translated into a black-and-white medium. The admiration of his friend, the American-born artist C.R. Leslie, prompted the writing of the Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, R.A. This biography was first published in 1843 and still remains an indispensable source of information on Constable.

In the 1820s the use of colour by Constable’s great contemporary and rival in landscape painting, J.M.W. Turner, was becoming bolder and even more uninhibited. This may have contributed to the greater readiness for change that we see in Constable’s late works. His ” Waterloo Bridge from Whitehall Stairs” is a monumental record of the opening ceremonial, painted in a high key of colour. His use of watercolour became more frequent, and in 1834, after he had been seriously ill, he sent no oils at all to the Royal Academy , depending for his principal exhibit on a large and remarkable watercolour, “Old Sarum” (Victoria and Albert Museum , London ). A visit to Arundel in the same summer imbued him with enthusiasm for a new type of countryside dominated by steep wooded slopes.

In 1836 Constable sent “The Cenotaph at Coleorton” to the Royal Academy exhibition. It was the last painting he showed in his lifetime. When he died, the painting on which he had been working the day before, “Arundel Mill and Castle” (Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo , Ohio ), was sufficiently completed to be shown posthumously at the next Academy exhibition. At his death his reputation was limited, but those who admired his work did so intensely. This admiration grew slowly throughout the 19th century, becoming more widespread as his sketches became available and their freshness and spontaneity were recognized. In 1843 his first biographer, C.R. Leslie, wrote that he was “the most genuine painter of English landscape,” and that is a judgment now almost universally reaffirmed.

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