John Constable was a painter who (along with J. M. W. Turner) dominated English landscape painting in the 19th century. Constable is famous for his warm and precise paintings of the English countryside, which he sketched constantly from nature. When he took up landscape it was considered as a minor branch of painting while those who earned their living by it were not taken seriously as artists. This attitude changed through men like Constable who saw it as their purpose in life to raise this type of painting to a new dignity.
The landscape painter Constable was born in the village of east Bergholt, Sussex, in 1776. His father was a wealthy corn merchant who owned a number of mills at Flatford and Dedham on the River Stour. The fact that Constable was born into the midst of this area, where his family dealt with the everyday, practical realities of country life, had a direct bearing on his career. As a child he was brought up for the Church but, as his elder brother had turned mentally insane, it was decided that Constable should be trained instead to run the family business. He worked at this after he left school but his heart wasn’t in it and he asked his younger brother to take over the reins.
Constable was more interested in painting which he had picked up on amateur sketching trips around his native countryside. His interest in taking his hobby seriously was encouraged by the landscape painter Sir George Beaumont who was also a patron of the arts. Constable later said that it was through his enthusiasm, and his own early trips around the countryside that made him want to be a painter. He truly liked to paint and, at the end of his life, he remarked that ‘painting out of doors in the country sunshine just makes me very happy’.
The artist loved to capture the sights of things like running water, trees swaying in the wind, ancient brick-work, slimy old posts and woodwork, and barges going up and down the River Stour. Another factor in his art was that he had been trained to look at and read the clouds and the direction of the wind before setting the angles of the sails that drove his father’s grain-crushing windmills. This last practice stood him in good stead when he took up landscape painting in earnest because in most of his pictures about a third of their area is taken up with the sky.
It wasn’t until Constable’s younger brother took over the management of the milling business for good that the artist was able to persuade his father to let him study painting professionally. He then entered the London Royal Academy schools as a probationer in 1799 where he attended life-classes, studied the old masters, and even turned up for the only tutorials he didn’t like. These were the dissection classes where doctors would slice up the bodies of executed criminals to show the students the muscular structure of the human body.
While he was studying at the Academy Constable was particularly inspired by the landscape work of the Dutch painter Jacob van Rysdael, and the French Neo-classical artist Claude Lorraine. At this time Constable’s own work did not reveal any real promise because his efforts were poor and his drawing from life was weak. Although he had started exhibiting his works in 1802, he had very little recognition or success. Nevertheless, he had a clear mental image of the types of pictures he wanted to execute and he worked hard to overcome his technical defects. It was to take Constable another 7 years before he began to paint the kind of works where he could embody his idea of the English countryside in a way that was both more realistic and spirited than any of his more sedate predecessors.
In 1806, Constable had gone on a 2-month tour of the Lake District, to try and record the atmosphere of its wild mountains and empty spaces. Instead of feeling spiritually uplifted, he just felt depressed and failed miserably. A friend of his later explained this when he said that Constable was a very sociable person who liked to paint scenery that was full of people and the hustle and bustle of daily life. The quiet and unfrequented places that he had tried to paint in the Lake District had only made the artist feel lonely, insecure and depressed.
Constable also executed portraits and religious subjects but only because he had to make ends meet. Although he was an excellent portraitist his heart was never in what he called ‘’very dull work.’’ On the other hand, his religious works were extremely bad so that when he took stock of his progress, he realized that he had been wasting his time and simply frittering away his talents for what he was really good at – which was landscape painting. So, he decided that from now on he would concentrate his energies on the scenes that had pleased him as a boy such as the summer fields and meadows of Sussex, the barges and tow horses, the ships and the men who he saw passing through the locks at Flatford or Dedham on the River Stour.
Between 1809 and 1816, Constable established his mastery of landscape and evolved his own individual manner; but these were also years of personal stress. During the winter he had to stay in London because it was there that his professional associates lived and worked and it was also the place where he could take part in exhibitions. He never at any time liked to be away from his home area and he was always upset at these enforced absences from the countryside where he felt most at home. When he did return there in the warmer weather, the diligence with which he studied the landscape can be seen in 2 surviving pocket sketch books dated 1813 and 1814. Both of them are still intact and they hold between them more than 200 small sketches that reflect most aspects of the summer life of the fields, villages and rivers in a limited area around his home village.
Constable took a long time getting married. He had fallen in love at the age of 36 with a Miss Maria Bicknell in 1809. After a 7-year courtship the couple finally decided to get married but the girl’s grandfather then threatened to disinherit her if she did. He said that she was marrying into a family that was beneath her station in life. Even worse, Constable’s own parents, Maria’s father and Maria herself pointed out to the painter that, without money, a penniless marriage would ruin any chance he might have of a career as an artist. At this crucial juncture in Constable’s life fate stepped in. Both of his parents died in quick succession and he inherited 1/5th of their property, which provided him with enough money to not only get married, but to carry on painting and also to be respectable.
Once Constable had established himself and his wife in London he set to work determinedly to show what he could achieve in his art. He was now 44 years of age and although he had only painted and sold a handful of pictures, they were at least original in their conception and style. They included Dedham Vale in the Morning, and Boatbuilding near Flatford Mill. This last work was painted entirely out-of-doors which was something that had never been done before because artists might sketch a scene outside in the open air but they would always work it up into a complete painting in their studios. By doing this, Constable anticipated the Pre-Raphaelite painters and the French Impressionists by at least 40 years. In fact, he was so proud of this deed that he never sold his Boatbuilding picture and kept it until the day he died.
Constable’s first open-air paintings were still products of the years of preparation. Of more significance was the large number of small oil sketches and drawings which were to form the basis of his future and more ambitious works. Most of these pictures are oils on paper about 6 by 12 inches wide. They show the form of the landscape, the colours that predominate; the quickly changing qualities of the atmosphere and the reflections of light on important details. Constable was aware that his contemporary, J. M. W. Turner, had already achieved the same thing but this was in water colour whereas Constable was the first to do it in oils. A major factor in his ability to do so was that it was the first time that oil colors were being produced in easy to carry metal tubes.
Constable’s sketches in this medium are now recognized to be among his most individual achievements and to have been unique at the time they were painted. These sketches were a means to an end because his main ambition was to express his ideas of the Sussex countryside in a series of large canvases which would be big enough to make an impression at the annual summer exhibitions of the Royal Academy. His first attempt at this was Flatford Mill on the River Stour, which he exhibited in 1817. This work shows a reach of the river running up to the Mill, bordered by a stretch of meadow which has just been scythed. This didn’t sell but his next work, The White Horse, did. However, this was one of only 20 paintings that he ever sold in Britain.
Constable followed up his first ever sale with another 4 paintings in the same mould which all portray scenes of the Stour River. These were all within the compass of the artist’s childhood walks in the countryside and, between the most easterly in direction and the most westerly; there is no more than two miles between them. To this unity of place is joined a unity of subject matter. With the exception of his most famous painting, The Hay Wain, they all show barges being maneuvered along the canals. The appearance in these works of cloud formations, the colour of the meadows and the trees, and the effect of light glistening on leaves and water, are the results of Constable’s deep, unprecedented study of nature which allowed him to communicate the solid actuality of these everyday country scenes, as well as the warm summery feeling he evokes in the viewer.
Constable became an ‘associate’ of the Royal Academy in 1821, which was also the year that he first exhibited his Hay Wain. The view he painted was taken from a small jetty in front of his dead father’s mill at Flatford, from where Constable lets us see downstream of the millrace, with a cottage on the left, counterbalanced by an open expanse of land, trees and sky on the right. In the centre of the picture we see a drayman gently guiding the Hay Wain or wagon through the broad, shallow stream of the millrace itself. The French Romantic painter Gericault saw this on a visit to London and praised it so much when he got back home to Paris, that an art dealer there bought this and 3 other works by Constable although he had never set eyes on any of them. The Hay Wain itself was considered so good by the French that it later won a gold medal at the Paris Salon in 1824.
Constable’s planned series of scenes along the river Stour were interrupted when he was commissioned by the Bishop of Salisbury to paint a picture of the town’s cathedral and its surrounding grounds. The painting was meant to be a record of an architectural monument but Constable changed it into his own idiom by framing the cathedral’s spire between overarching trees, emphasizing the play of light and shade on the Gothic stonework, and by setting the whole under a sky in which rain is impending. His colourful, romantic treatment of Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds did not please his holiness who refused to buy it. Other events intruded on Constable’s planned set of pictures but this time it was on account of his wife’s illness from an incurable disease. She was suffering from consumption or tuberculosis for which there was no cure except for what doctors called ‘fresh air’.
This was why Constable had first moved house to Hampstead Heath, which is on the hills in the north of London. From these heights he painted a number of scenes of the view looking down into the city itself. He then bought a house in Brighton which is by the sea, and the place where he had spent his honeymoon. None of it was any good because his wife’s condition got worse until she finally died in 1828 at the age of 41. During this decade, Turner’s work in landscape painting had become bolder, brighter and more uninhibited. Although Constable hardly ever spoke to the man and personally, thought of the man as rude and uncouth, he respected his intelligence in art and understood subconsciously that Turner was aiming for stronger effects of light in his paintings. This is the thing that contributed to Constable’s greater readiness for change in his late works. For instance, his Waterloo Bridge from Whitehall Stairs, is a recording of the opening of the bridge, and is Turneresque in that it is painted in sparkling, bright colours.
Constable’s use of water colour became more frequent in the 1830s, and in 1834, after he had been seriously ill, he sent no oils at all to the Royal Academy, but depended instead on a large and remarkable water colour called Old Sarum. Two years later HE sent “The Cenotaph at Coleorton” to the Royal Academy exhibition. It was the last painting he showed in his lifetime. When he died, the picture he had been working on the day before, “Arundel Mill and Castle” was sufficiently completed to be shown posthumously at the next Academy exhibition.
John Constable watched landscape work come from a minor category of the arts to a major industry in his lifetime. Like Turner and others, he fought to assure the proper recognition for this mode of the arts and his own place in its history. In his last lecture, a year before he died in 1837, Constable summed up his convictions when he said that ‘painting was living, and that it was a great thing when a man’s work and his inclinations were one and the same.’ 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 more available and their freshness and spontaneity were recognized. In 1843 his biographer Leslie wrote that Constable was ‘’the most genuine painter of English landscape’’, and that’s a judgment that many today would agree with.