The English Romantic artist John Constable was famous for depicting the country side scenes of Dedham Vale, also known as the Constable Country. His paintings of an area around the Essex-Suffolk border changed the way English landscapists would appreciate the beauty of the countryside. Suddenly, genre painting became a trend once again but this time, Constable added some Romantic touch ups on the art works.
For Constable, he believed “I should paint my own places best”, localizing his art and subject matter. Setting up a precept like this provided him enough inspiration for developing one-of-a-kind styles which he combined his observations of nature with his personal vision of his birth town. This specialty had also prompted him to just stay in England and never follow the footsteps of his contemporaries who extensively journeyed to and fro different European destinations.
Constable’s most important works include The Hay Wain (1821) and Dedham Vale (1802). However, his contributions to the British arts did not give him enough fortune to live a highly celebrated life. It was actually his French clients that appreciated his works more, and his style and philosophy was adopted by the Barbizon School. The Royal Academy only accepted him as its member during his later years.
John Constable was born on June 11, 1776 in East Bergholt, Suffolk. He was the son of a corn miller and merchant named Golding Constable, who also happened to own Flatford Mill and Dedham Mill. His family was obviously well-to-do and Golding wanted him to follow his footsteps because his older brother was mentally challenged.
He was sent to Dedham to pursue his formal education. And by the time he left school, he immediately had gone down to business. However in an unexpected turn of events his brother expressed his desire to run the business, which John willingly granted him so.
John spent most days of his youth doing sketches of the town. He traveled across Suffolk and Essex to look for some inspiration for his landscape ideas. And since then, the two towns became the primary subject of his paintings. He even told his friends that the appealing beauty of the countryside inspired him to become a painter, and he was eternally grateful for it.
Art collector, George Beaumont was a significant person in his early career. The collector showed him Hagar and the Angel painted by the French Baroque artist, Claude Lorrain, and he found it as a great source of inspiration. He became also acquainted with John Thomas Smith who served as his advisor in his art and business. Smith had even gone to the point where he’d encourage the young Constable to just become a merchant rather than become an independent painter.
While visiting the areas of the countryside, Constable must have already been taking his art lessons under the Royal Academy Schools. He was already 22 at the time he pursued formal art schooling, which he completed one decade later. Historians say that Constable, in his spare time, would visit East Bergholt and London, to sketch its cityscapes and landscapes.
Apparently, being a landscape painter, he chose to discard the so-called hierarchy of genres in which landscape painting was considered as the lowest form. Constable’s subject was never about mythological narratives or religious interpretations but instead, he kept things simple and less grand. He wanted to depict agricultural labor, to which environment he grew up in. This was his inspiration for Golding Constable’s Flower Garden in 1815 and The Cornfield in 1826.
John Constable also took interest in the works of other landscape artists such as Peter Paul Rubens, Thomas Gainsborough, Jacob van Ruisdael, and the Italian master Annibale Carracci. There were other times when he would read sermons and poem collections to help him become articulate in communications.
His first exhibition at the Royal Academy took place in 1803. He submitted some of his oil paintings despite the possibility of becoming looked down on because of his chosen genre and subject. But his good reputation was already established that even before the exhibition, he was invited by the Great Marlow Military College to become its drawing master. However, Constable turned down the offer because all he really wanted was to become a professional landscapist.
There was a point in his life that he got confused with his identity as a painter. He said in a letter sent to John Dunthrone that he tried to identify his art with the works of other men instead of being comfortable with himself as a natural painter.
With natural painting, he would be able to uncover the truth or even “do something beyond the truth” because from what he had observed of his generation, people were all after brilliance and magnificence. His critical understanding of society resonates with Rousseau’s take on the artisans in his hometown; whom he described as arbitrary on the prices of their ornaments, because these artists were only after pleasing the rich clients.
The simplicity in Constable’s paintings would remind people of simple things yet utopic as well. The countryside has never been about luxury or “bravura”, so it was only natural for the painter to interpret his subject as it is. During the early stages of his career, his treatment of light, color and brushstroke was fresh and new yet unfashionable because of the old masters’ (i.e. Claude Lorrain) influences on him.
In 1803, he traveled to various fields to do his work outdoor. He also went to a one-month cruise via an East Indiaman ship as it would traverse the south and east ports. By 1806, he arrived at Lake District where he stayed for two months touring the area. He had documented his excursions there and wrote them up in a letter which was sent to Charles Leslie.
At the Lake District, Constable drew some portraits. He even attempted at drawing religious-themed images but he was not entirely comfortable and confident with it. Thus, he stuck to what he does best; landscape painting. Around 1810, he developed a routine that would get him to London every winter and to East Bergholt every summer.
1811 was a pivotal year of his career because that was the time when he got to see the Salisbury cathedral which provided him great inspiration for a magnificent work. He went there to visit his patron, John Fisher, the bishop of the said city.
In 1816, John Constable married his childhood sweetheart, Maria Bicknell even though Bicknell’s influential grandfather vocally expressed his disapproval of their relationship. Bicknell’s family ranked among the higher nobility while the Constables were considered inferiors. The death of John’s parents were a blessing in disguise for he was to inherit a fifth share in their corn mill business. This was enough for the couple to start a comfortable life together.
Constable’s marriage to Bicknell had brought some significant changes in his life emotionally He became more expressive in his art as can be seen in the clarity and vivid coloring of his paintings produced at the time. In 1819, he found a collector who would buy his The White Horse, a major work. This was then followed by a series of large size paintings, which led to his promotion at the academy.
Constable became an Associate and his reputation and popularity grew even more. He submitted new paintings for the exhibition, one of which was The Hay Wain of 1821. His contemporaries such as Theodore Gericault and John Arrowsmith paid a visit to the exhibition and bought some of his works. The Hay Wain won the gold medal prize of the Paris Salon exhibition.
The Hay Wain brought him fame in France. Over 20 of his paintings were sold to his Parisian clients greater than what his works had achieved in England. But despite this international recognition and invitations from foreign art collectors which meant going out of the country, Constable refused to accept. He told his friend Francis Darby that he did not want to leave England because he’d rather be a penniless artist than an affluent man in another country.
At the advent of 1820’s, Constable has had received commissions that would put him into pressure and mismanagement. His wife suffered from bouts of illnesses which added some stress to his already stressful life. With that, a supposed calm discussion with Arrowsmith led to a quarrel that closed all important opportunities in France.
In 1828, Maria Bicknell died of tuberculosis just a few days after giving birth to their 7th off-spring. He got depressed that he thought his world will never be the same again. The death of his wife prompted him to dress in black since then, and of course, carried his whole family over his back alone.
In that same year, Bicknell’s father had also died and he became the sole heir to the £22,000 inheritance of his wife. He spent the money on publishing his landscape works, including its engraving. However, the project went unsuccessful as they couldn’t get enough buyers to support its nationwide circulation. Constable had to work on another collaboration with David Lucas, who produced 40 prints of his landscapes.
Lucas took the landscapes and put it through a series of proofing. However, the collaboration went financially unsuccessful yet again. In 1831, he was elected as Visitor to the Royal Academy. He delivered lectures about genre painting and was a guest speaker in several public discussions. This revived his popularity among younger painters and the academicians.
John Constable died of heart failure on March 31, 1837 at the age of 60. His remains were interred at St. John at Hampstead cemetery and the tomb was placed right beside his wife.