Constable, John

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

British painter.

The artist's father was a wealthy man who owned mills at Flatford and Dedham, on the Suffolk and Essex banks of the Stour, respectively. Constable began his career in 1799 after entering the Royal Academy Schools in London. In the years 1809 to 1816 he established his mastery and evolved his individual manner, concentrating on the scenes that had delighted him as a boy: the village lanes, the fields and meadows running down to the Stour, barges drawn by tow horses, and the vessels passing the locks at Flatford or Dedham. In 1813–14 he filled two sketchbooks, which survive intact, with over 200 landscape drawings. After about 1816 Constable began to embody his concept of the Suffolk countryside in a series of canvases monumental enough to make an impression in exhibitions of the Royal Academy; his best-known work from this period is The Hay-Wain (1821). These works reveal Constable's detailed study of the formation of clouds, the colour of meadows and trees, and the effect of light glistening on leaves and water. Especially later in his career, he was considered a master of watercolour as well as oil painting on canvas. He is ranked with J.M.W. Turner as one of the greatest 19th-century British landscape painters.

Self-portrait by John Constable, detail of a drawing in pencil and watercolour, с 1804; in ...

Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London

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▪ British artist
born June 11, 1776, East Bergholt, Suffolk, England
died March 31, 1837, London
 major figure in English landscape painting in the early 19th century. He is best known for his paintings of the English countryside, particularly those representing his native valley of the River Stour, an area that came to be known as “Constable country.”

      The son of a wealthy miller and merchant who owned a substantial house and small farm, Constable was reared in a small Suffolk village. The environs of his childhood and his understanding of its rural economy would later figure prominently in his work. As he would write in 1821, “I should paint my own places best . . . I associate my ‘careless boyhood' to all that lies on the banks of the Stour.”

      Constable was meant to enter his father's business, but, after meeting the famous connoisseur Sir George Beaumont in 1795, and then a circle of antiquarians and connoisseurs at Edmonton in 1796, he was inspired to pursue art. In February 1799 he made himself known to the influential academician Joseph Farington, and in March he entered the prestigious Royal Academy schools, with the grudging approval of his father. At the time, art academies stressed history painting as the most appropriate subject matter for their students, but from the beginning Constable showed a particular interest in landscape.

      In 1802 Constable refused the stability of a post as drawing master at a military academy so that he could instead dedicate himself to landscape painting and to studying nature directly in the English countryside. That same year he exhibited his work at the Royal Academy for the first time. Despite some early explorations in oil, in the first part of this decade he preferred using watercolour and graphic media in his studies of nature. He produced fine studies in these media during a trip to the famously picturesque Lake District in autumn 1806, but his exhibitions of these works in both 1807 and 1808 were unsuccessful in attracting public notice.

Early maturity
      Although based in London during this period, Constable would frequently make extended visits to his native East Bergholt to sketch. (On one such stay in 1809, he fell in love with Maria Bicknell, who was visiting her grandfather, the rector there.) Constable had been regularly sketching in oil since 1808, and by 1810 he had achieved extraordinary deftness with the medium (he would often be associated with his oil sketches in the future). His art became far more focused about this time: his sketches were either discrete studies, or, befitting academic practice, they were made in preparation for preconceived easel paintings. The most significant large easel painting of the period was Dedham Vale: Morning (1811), which married closely observed naturalistic effect to a scene composed according to the academic criteria established by 17th-century French painter Claude Lorrain.

      In September 1811 Constable stayed in Salisbury with an old family friend, the Bishop of Salisbury, and grew close to the bishop's nephew, John Fisher. Their correspondence is a hugely informative source on Constable's art: he explains his aims and aspirations, reacts candidly and sometimes aggressively to contemporary criticism, and reveals himself to be driven, ambitious, and prey to gnawing self-doubt.

 During this period, Bicknell's family was pressuring her to end her relationship with the struggling artist, and her courtship with him had to become effectively clandestine. Constable found relief from this distraction by working in East Bergholt and, by 1814, with Boatbuilding and The Stour Valley and Dedham Village, he was painting easel pictures in the open. In his works from this period, such as Flatford Mill (1816), Constable displayed remarkable precision of touch and accuracy in description, comparable to contemporary landscapes by George Robert Lewis and John Linnell. His iconography was traditional and celebrated the continuum and stability of English country life. Constable achieved a bittersweet stability of his own when, upon his father's death in 1816, he received an inheritance that allowed him the financial independence to marry Maria.

      By 1817 Constable was an established Londoner, and, with the birth of his son John that December, he became a father. With a family to support, professional recognition became essential. In order to achieve this, he began to paint on a large scale, and the 1.9-metre (6.2-foot) Stour scene The White Horse, which he showed at the 1819 Royal Academy exhibit, attracted public attention, generated critical approval, and helped bring about his election to become an Associate of the Royal Academy.

      By 1819 Maria was exhibiting the early stages of tuberculosis, and her failing health led the family to rent a house in the north London suburb of Hampstead, where she could find fresh air. Constable began painting on Hampstead Heath, before turning his focus to the skies. His cloud studies are unique, capturing the momentary qualities of changeable skies and accurately documenting meteorological phenomena with which he was familiar. In contrast to these small sketches were his large, detailed paintings made for exhibition. He based these paintings on oil and pencil sketches, from which he would essay a composition onto a full-scale canvas before painting the final work. Constable laboured over these large works as befitted grand academic painting from the period. The White Horse initiated a series of large, well-received paintings that he exhibited, including Stratford Mill in 1819–20; The Hay-Wain, one of his best-known works, in 1821; View on the Stour near Dedham in 1822; The Lock in 1824; and The Leaping Horse in 1825. These all featured views of the Stour, but at a remove, as if filtered through memory.

      By 1824 Constable's paint surfaces were becoming increasingly fractured, communicating optical effects that evoked the physical experience of nature; these qualities, in addition to his increasingly vibrant, luminous use of colour, have led many, erroneously, to see his work as a precursor to Impressionism. He moved away from recording precise details of a certain locale partly because he was sketching at a variety of places during this period—briefly in Salisbury in 1823, and from 1824 in the fashionable seaside resort of Brighton, where the family repaired for the sake of Maria's health and where Constable made a last great series of oil sketches. But his abstracted locales and omission of any agricultural representation can be read another way. An economic depression after the Napoleonic Wars had led to agrarian riots, and yet Constable, a loyal Tory, chose to portray an abstracted, well-ordered English society that was untouched by the industrial and social changes surrounding him.

      Throughout the 1820s critics praised his work and Constable sold paintings. He achieved international success in 1824 when The Hay-Wain was shown at the Paris Salon, where he won a gold medal that was awarded by the king. Constable's output also diversified: Chain Pier, Brighton (1826–27) pictured, among other things, urban modernity. In 1828, Dedham Vale, reprising a scene first painted in his youth, secured him election to become a Royal Academician in 1829, a post that was much belated due in part to his famously difficult personality. This honour was soured, however, by the death of Maria, his great love and the mother of his seven children, in 1828.

Final years
      Constable's letters of the 1830s are suffused with an alienation and depression no doubt heightened by the critical attacks to which both he and his great contemporary J.M.W. Turner (Turner, J.M.W.) had been subjected in periodicals since the mid-1820s. Although they were never close and had radically different approaches to landscape painting, Constable and Turner both espoused the grounding in tradition of British painter Sir Joshua Reynolds; such ties to tradition were increasingly seen as obsolete by a new generation of artists and critics that was forming its values in a rapidly developing, industrialized society. Constable nonetheless stayed active. In 1829 he exhibited Hadleigh Castle, a stark image of ruin and desolation, at the Royal Academy. He teamed up with the engraver David Lucas in 1829, producing mezzotints after his works that were published as a suite of prints entitled English Landscape.

      In his studies of nature during the period, Constable reverted from oil to watercolour and drawing, and he exhibited a fascinating range of work, such as Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831). Constable created this painting, which quoted motifs from his renowned Hay-Wain, while agitation for parliamentary reform against the church made conservatives such as himself very anxious. This panic is perhaps embodied in the painting's dramatic shifts in scale: the wagon appears enormous next to the houses, yet is dwarfed by the looming cathedral, which symbolically stands firm, enveloped in a rainbow, in the face of stormy skies.

      In 1836 Constable submitted his last Royal Academy entry, Cenotaph to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Erected in the Grounds of Coleorton Hall, Leicestershire, by the Late Sir George Beaumont. The work was a valediction to Reynolds, the father of British art, whose ties to tradition Constable revered; to George Beaumont, whose early influence inspired him; and to Somerset House, the site of exhibitions by the Royal Academy, England's bastion of historic art, up until this final 1836 show. The painting served as an appropriate ode to the evaporating, traditional world in which Constable's personal and artistic values had been formed.

      Constable was a significant painter during a period when landscape was a dominant genre in British art. His oeuvre was unique in that he usually did not elect to paint places popular with the touring public or other artists, but rather concentrated on sites with which he had family connections, or where, for personal reasons, he happened to be. And while other artists made oil sketches, none did so as extensively and intensively as Constable. His landscapes represent a sometimes astonishing capacity to represent natural appearances—particularly, in his later years, the fleeting and dramatic effects of stormy skies—as well as a profound and prolonged meditation on the rural realities of a Britain undergoing a bewildering socioeconomic transformation.

      Constable achieved a reasonable reputation during his lifetime as a respected and significant landscape painter. After Constable's death, Charles Robert Leslie's Memoirs of the Life of John Constable (1843), based on Constable's edited correspondence, extended his reputation, laying out the fictional life of a sincere and dedicated artist struggling against iniquity and incomprehension; it was Leslie's loyalty to his friend that perhaps caused him to gloss over many of Constable's less-appealing characteristics. By the early 20th century Constable's oeuvre was reexamined when scholars' need to find British antecedents to Impressionism led to an overemphasis on his oil sketches. In the late 20th century a reassessment grounded more in historical factors was attempted, an area of study that remains contentious. While some have tried to relocate Constable's landscapes within their contemporary context and have suggested that they are complex works of art with, often, a deeply political content, others have preferred to see them as embodying a quintessential “Englishness.” The fact that the argument is ongoing confirms the continuing vitality of these landscapes.

Michael Rosenthal

Additional Reading

Life and work
The best biography on the artist remains C.R. Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, 3rd ed. (1995). Also of interest are Graham Reynolds, Constable: The Natural Painter (1965, reissued 1977); Reg Gadney, Constable and His World (1976); and Michael Rosenthal, Constable (1987). Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable (1991, reissued 1993), offers a comprehensive overview of his art. Graham Reynolds, The Early Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, 2 vol. (1996), and The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, 2 vol. (1984), supply the definitive catalogue raisonné of the artist's work. Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable: Landscape Watercolours and Drawings (1976); and John Baskett, Constable Oil Sketches (1966, reprinted 1977), deal with the artist's work in particular media. Constable's letters were compiled in R.B. Beckett (ed.), John Constable's Correspondence, 6 vol. (1962–68); a further volume was edited by Leslie Parris, Conal Shields, and Ian Fleming-Williams (eds.), John Constable: Further Documents and Correspondence (1975).

Themes and criticism
John Barrell, The Dark Side of the Landscape: The Rural Poor in English Painting, 1730–1840 (1980, reissued 1983), concentrates on the figure in Constable's work. Ronald Paulson, Literary Landscape: Turner and Constable (1982); and Karl Kroeber, Romantic Landscape Vision: Constable and Wordsworth (1975), connect art and literature during the period. The psychology of Constable's landscape is explored in Ann Bermingham, Landscape and Ideology: The English Rustic Tradition, 1740–1860 (1986); Alastair Smart and Attfield Brooks, Constable and His Country (1976), relates Constable's paintings to topography; and the artist's relation to place is considered in Michael Rosenthal, Constable: The Painter and His Landscape (1983, reprinted 1986). His sky studies are dealt with in Kurt Badt, John Constable's Clouds, trans. from German (1950); John E. Thornes, John Constable's Skies: A Fusion of Art and Science (1999); and Edward Morris (ed.), Constable's Clouds: Paintings and Cloud Studies by John Constable (2000). The mezzotints are explored in Andrew Wilton, Constable's “English Landscape Scenery” (1979). Constable's ideas are explored in R.B. Beckett (ed.), John Constable's Discourses (1970). The artist's contemporary critical reception is examined in Judy Crosby Ivy, Constable and the Critics, 1802–1837 (1991); and his posthumous reputation is examined in Ian Fleming-Williams and Leslie Parris, The Discovery of Constable (1984).

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Universalium. 2010.

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