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John Constable

English, 1776 - 1837

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Growing up with little obvious natural talent, John Constable almost willed his genius into being; he was slow to come to more than ordinary proficiency in his art, yet in middle age painted landscapes as revolutionary as anything exhibited in Europe in their time. For most of his life he lived as an outsider, cut off from patronage and the approval of his colleagues, not selling a single picture to a stranger until he was thirty-eight years old, and waiting twenty-seven years for full membership in the Royal Academy. Nor was he allowed the luxury of indifference to fame. He courted conventional success and lived by middle-class, intensely conservative standards, sustained by his belief in his own originality. As Farington recorded in his diary entry for May 19, 1808, when Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846) asked him "Why He was so anxious abt. what He was doing in Art," Constable replied, "Think what I am doing,'' meaning, Farington filled in, ''how much greater the object & the effort.''1

His father was a prosperous mill owner in East Bergholt, a village on the Essex-Suffolk border nestled in Dedham Vale, a valley two miles wide and six miles long, through which runs the river Stour. Constable would paint the villages and locks of the Stour Valley so often, and in such detail, that we know them, paradoxically, as well as we know imaginary villages in which novelists make us feel we have lived for a time--a Middlemarch, for example, or a Highbury.

Long before he could draw, Constable felt the need to visualize pictures of this cultivated landscape, threaded with canals built in the seventeenth century for the movement by barge of milled grain. In 1821 he wrote: "I associate my ‘careless boyhood’ to all that lies on the banks of the Stour. They made me a painter (& I am gratefull) that is I had often thought of pictures of them before I had ever touched a pencil."2 Each day of his childhood drove deeper into him this love for "every stile and stump, and every lane in the village," every mood of the weather and effect of light. As late as 1833, long after he had ceased to visit his boyhood home, he described his mezzotint Spring like this: “One of those bright and animated days of the early year, when all nature bears so exhilarating an aspect; when at noon large garish clouds, surcharged with hail or sleet, sweep with their broad cool shadows the fields, woods, and hills."3

Two men, both from London, showed the miller's son what an artist's life might be. The first was Sir George Beaumont (1753-1827), to whom Constable was introduced in Suffolk. Beaumont allowed Constable to copy watercolor studies he owned by Thomas Girtin (1775-1802) and also his famous little Claude (1600-1682), Hagar and the Angel, now in the National Gallery in London. His other early mentor, John Thomas "Antiquity" Smith (1766-1833), whom Constable met on a year long stay in London in 1796, passed on a more conservative, more fully eighteenth-century tradition of the picturesque style of landscape composition and also gave him lessons in etching as well as his first taste of the London art world of print and book dealers, collectors and Academicians.

Yielding to his father's wish, Constable spent the year 1797 clerking for the family concern in Suffolk. But in 1799 he moved to London, and on February 4 that year entered the Royal Academy schools as a probationer. There he made friends with older artists such as Joseph Farington (1747-1821) and Benjamin West (1738-1820), president of the academy, both of whom recognized in Constable's work a passionate devotion to nature and encouraged him with advice at once practical and idealistic. West, for example, counseled him to turn down the offer of a steady job as a drawing master on the grounds that such work would rob him of the chance to become a real artist, or in Constable's words, it would be the "death-blow to all my prospects of perfection in the art I love."4 Of his painting, West told him: "Always remember, sir, that light and shadow never stand still," and “Your darks should look like the darks of silver, not of lead or of slate."5

From his first early exercises in the picturesque, Constable in the years from 1799 to 1808 groped from style to style, imitating now Claude, now Gainsborough (1727-1788), now Girtin. Twice, under the patronage of his uncle David Pike Watts, he traveled to the Lake and Peak districts (1801, 1806) but found that mountain scenery failed to move him. Twice he tried his hand at large religious compositions, in altarpieces from the churches at St. Michael Brantham (1805) and St. James Nayland (1810), both in Suffolk, but the results were ludicrously inept. More successful were his portraits, painted during these years partly to gratify his parents' belief that he would always be able to survive by painting faces if his landscapes failed to sell. The conclusion to all these trial runs he foretold even before beginning them. To his painting partner in East Bergholt, the local glazier John Dunthorne (1770-1844), he wrote on May 29, 1802, "...'there is no easy way of becoming a good painter.' For the last two years I have been running after pictures, and seeking the truth at second hand. I have not endeavoured to represent nature with the same elevation of mind with which I set out, but have rather tried to make my performances look like the work of other men....I shall return to Bergholt, where I shall endeavour to get a pure and unaffected manner of representing the scenes that may employ me."6

In the years from 1809 to 1816 he turned within himself, narrowed his subject matter to encompass only the places and scenes he had known from his youth or had come to love. This meant in the first case, the Stour Valley; in the second, Salisbury, Wiltshire, which he first visited in 1811 and where lived his greatest friend, Archdeacon John Fisher (1788-1832), prebendary of Salisbury Cathedral. He stopped "running after pictures." Indeed, he seems to have tried to forget he had ever seen a picture before, seeking to record what he saw in front of him as it was at the moment he saw it, not with the objectivity of a topographer but with his own feelings and sensations as he stood before nature recorded intact. His art, in Lawrence Gowing's phrase, was to realize and not to feign.

How revolutionary this approach was has been discussed by Michael Kitson ("John Constable, 1810-1816: A Chronological Study." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld lnstitutes, vol. 20 (1957), pp. 338-57), who points to such sketches from about 1811 as Lock and Cottages on the Stour (10 x 12", London, Victoria and Albert Museum) as fundamentally different in approach from an eighteenth-century conception of landscape painting, in which feeling could be expressed only at the expense of naturalism (the later Gainsborough, for example) or naturalism sought only at the price of emotion (as in Paul Sandby {1730-1809}). Now, with Constable, both naturalism and feeling were united in the same canvas. “Painting is but another word for feeling," he wrote to Fisher on October 23, 1821;7 but he also said, elsewhere, “Painting should be understood, not looked on with blind wonder, nor considered only as a poetic aspiration, but as a pursuit, legitimate, scientific, and mechanical.”8

In an early masterpiece, Boat-building near Flatford Mill (1815, 20 x 24 1/4”, London, Victoria and Albert Museum), the artist chose an ordinary scene, a view of people at work in pretty but unremarkable surroundings. How different this is from the romanticism of either Gainsborough's peasants or Turner's (1775-1851) Hannibal (1812, 57 1/2 x 93 1/2 ", London, Tate Gallery). Henceforth, Constable wrote, "It is the business of a painter...to make something out of nothing, in attempting which he must almost of necessity become poetical."9 This is the first instance of an English artist claiming that beauty was independent of subject matter. No longer was he tied to the great traditions of pastoral or heroic modes of landscape, although this hardly meant they were traditions Constable ignored. As early as the letter to Dunthorne of May 29, 1802, thinking of Turner's Tenth Plague of Egypt (1802, 56 1/2 x 93", London, Tate Gallery), Constable had written, “There is room enough for a natural painture. The great vice of the present day is bravura, an attempt at something beyond the truth....Fashion always had, & will have its day--but Truth (in all things) only will last and can have just claims on posterity."10

In the years until about 1816 Constable gained the control over his medium that he needed before setting off to extend the very definition of what a finished picture could be. This great summation he unrolled in six canvases exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1819 and 1825, each about six feet by four and one half feet, and each showing the progress of a barge on the canals of the Stour. The six are The White Horse (1819, New York, Frick Collection), Stratford Mill (1820, Great Britain, private collection), The Hay Wain (1821, London, National Gallery), View on the Stour near Dedham (1822, San Marino, California, Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery), The Lock (1824, Gloucestershire, Sudeley Castle, Morrison Pictures Settlement), and The Leaping Horse (1825, London, Royal Academy). The problem he faced and solved in these pictures was one artists had pondered for at least a century: he had evolved an expressive and precise sketching style, which brilliantly caught effects of light, motion, texture, and time. But a sketch is limited, or in his words, "will not serve more than one state of mind & will not serve to drink at again & again--in a sketch there is nothing but one state of mind--that which you were in at the time."11 The problem was twofold: how to translate the spontaneous brushstrokes of his spirited little sketches to a full-sized canvas and yet not lose the immediacy and freshness of the original moment of inspiration; and allied to this, how to translate scenes of working life in a tiny East Anglian village to a scale and a moral importance comparable to historical or classical landscapes of Claude, Gaspard Poussin (1615-1675), Richard Wilson, or Turner (1775-1851).

The instrument he used to achieve the first of these aims was the full-sized sketch, what Kenneth Clark has called Constable's "supreme achievement."12 These were apparently trial runs for his six-foot academy pictures, but painted with an unselfconscious freedom, which corresponded to everyone’s idea of a sketch eight by twelve inches, but which in the early nineteenth century were unacceptable as "real" pictures. Besides blocking out the masses and working out the composition, he was free to minimize differences in tone and texture, background and foreground, and even to some extent differences of color. By doing so, he could explore the formal values of the scene in front of him, rather, if one is permitted such a comparison without making Constable sound more modern than he is, as Cézanne (1839-1906) would do with his Mount St. Victoire series in the 1890s.

These famous sketches seem to have been painted as exercises in self-referential painting: painting as painting rather than simply as a view of the real world. In the finished canvases, focus is clarified, texture to some extent returns, colors and outlines are rendered in a way much more true to their equivalents in nature.

The second of his aims, to have his academy machines accepted as the successors to the grand tradition of Roman and Bolognese landscape, simply meant the acceptance of things he knew to be real on a par with the idealized, and therefore imaginary world. One way to effect this was to model the compositions of the academy pictures, however lowly their actual subject, on examples from the work of Claude and Rubens (1577-1640). Thus, paradoxically, when we stand in front of a canvas like The Hay Wain, however accurate the fictive view in front of us may appear, it has been monumentalized, altered, shifted, falsified in its own way, so that the world in Constable's painting is denser, more intense, and more teeming than in reality: the buildings are larger, the river wider, the whole scene given a dignity and scale it simply does not possess when we stand in front of the spot itself.

Constable's life was one of deep frustration, of gratification delayed nearly beyond endurance. As he struggled for the acceptance of his art by his colleagues, so he defied the society in which he lived to marry the well-born granddaughter of the rector of East Bergholt, Maria Bicknell, in 1816. He placed his trust in what he knew to be real: the worth of his own art, his love for his wife, his devotion to his children, his friendship with John Fisher. In his most moving letter to Fisher, he thanks his friend for believing in him, for Fisher's trust "teaches me to value my own natural dignity of mind...above all things.”13 Like his painting, Constable was a man of inexhaustible richness and complexity. His letters are among the most revealing and eloquent ever written by an artist; his biography, by the artist C. R. Leslie (1794-1859), has been called the finest biography of a painter ever written.14

Constable's art was his life, and his canvases are but extensions, we sometimes feel (and indeed, he sometimes said),15 of his own personality. This is most evident after his wife's death from tuberculosis in 1828, leaving him with seven children. Then, anxiety, tension, loneliness--qualities always liable to darken and trouble the spirit of paintings throughout his career--suddenly roll over Constable, so that works executed after 1828, such as the Sketch for “Hadleigh Castle” (1828-29, 48 1/4 x 65 7/8", London, Tate Gallery) with its wild, uncontrolled brushwork, become clear metaphors for loneliness and also endurance; or his Cenotaph (1836, 52 x 42 3/4, London, National Gallery); his tribute to both Sir George Beaumont and Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), a statement about the isolation of an artist's life, comparable in power to Cowper's most melancholy and gentle lines of poetry.

Constable first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1802. He was elected an Associate at the age of forty-three in 1819, and a full Academician in 1829. His first real taste of fame came in 1824 when his Hay Wain was exhibited at the Paris Salon and won the gold medal. French artists, from Gericault (1791-1824)--who saw the picture in London in 1821--and Delacroix (1798-1863) who is said to have repainted the Massacre at Chios (1824, 164 x 139", Paris, Louvre) after seeing The Hay Wain in Paris in 1824, were his most enthusiastic admirers. Delacroix, for example, sought Constable out in Sussex during the French artist's visit to England in 1825, and the dealers most anxious to possess Constable's paintings in the 1820s were primarily French.

Constable lived in London on the perimeters of Bloomsbury at Charlotte Street (1811-17) and Keppel Street, Russell Square (1817-22). From 1819 he took a house in Hampstead where his wife and children were sent in the summer for the air, and in 1827 he bought a house in Well Walk, Hampstead, where Maria died.

The number of locations associated with Constable are surprisingly few: besides Suffolk and Salisbury, he painted at Brighton, where he and his family spent time between 1824 and 1828, and in Hampstead, which after 1821 gradually replaced Suffolk as his contact with country scenery, and where he painted his famous studies of clouds, executed on the heath in 1821 and 1822.

Richard Dorment, from British Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art: From the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Century (1986), pp. 45-49.

1. Joseph Farington. The Diary of Joseph Farington. [1793-1821]. Edited by Kenneth Garlick and Angus Macintyre (vols. 1-6) and Kathryn Cave (vols. 7-16). 16 vols. New Haven and London, 1978-84. Vol. 9 January 1808-June 1809. May 19, 1808. The MS. of the diary is in the Royal Library, Windsor.
2. Constable to John Fisher, October 23, 1821, in R. B. Beckett, ed. John Constable's Correspondence. 6 vols. Ipswich, 1962-68, vol. 6, p. 78.
3. See Andrew Wilton. Constable's "English Landscape Scenery". London, 1979, p. 32.
4. Constable to John Dunthorne, May 29, 1802, in C. R. Leslie. Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, Composed Chiefly of His Letters. Rev. ed. Edited by Jonathan Mayne. London, 1951, p. 15.
5. Ibid., p. 14.
6. Ibid., p. I5.
7. Beckett, ed., 1962-68, vol. 6, p. 78.
8. Leslie, 1951, p. 273.
9. Constable to John Fisher, August 29, 1824, in Beckett, ed., 1962-68, vol. 6, p. 172.
10. Beckett, ed., 1962-68, vol. 2, p. 32.
11. Constable to John Fisher, November 2, 1823, in Beckett, ed., 1962- 68, vol. 6, p. 142.
12. Kenneth Clark, Landscape into Art (London, 1949), p. 77.
13. February 1821, in Beckett, ed., 1962-68, vol. 6, p. 63.
14. Gowing, 1960, n.p.
15. "Now for some wise purpose is every bit of sunshine clouded over in me" (Constable to David Lucas, in Beckett, ed., 1962-68, vol.4, p. 414), or ''Can it therefore be wondered at that I paint continual storms? 'Tempest o'er tempest rolled"' (to C. R. Leslie, in Beckett, ed., vol. 3, p. 122); or, having added a ruin to the first engraving of The Glebe Farm, Constable remarked: "for, not to have a symbol...of myself...would be missing the "opportunity" (Beckett, ed., vol. 4, p. 382).

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