John Constable images and biography
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John Constable


"Unlike Turner, Constable entered the art world fairly late in life, and he made painfully slow progress once he was in it. Born at East Bergholt, Suffolk, the son of a prosperous corn merchant, John Constable spent several years in the family business before deciding, and obtaining permission, to study painting full-time. Before he went to the Royal Academy schools in 1799 (the same year that Turner, only very slightly older, was elected as an Associate) he had acquired some sort of grounding however: his spare time had been passed with the local plumber and artist, John Dunthorne; he had been introduced to the connoisseur Sir George Beaumont and had been shown his Claude 'Hagar and the Angel'; and he had made friends with two artists-cum-antiquarians, John Cranch and J.T. Smith, assisting the latter with his etchings of picturesque cottages and with his research on Gainsborough. Once in London, Constable studied Old Master landscapes in the collections of Beaumont, Beckford and the influential Academician Joseph Farington. Constable continued to study and copy the work of his predecessors for as long as he lived, constantly measuring their interpretations of the natural world against his own experience of it. In 1802 he exhibited at the Academy for the first time and also received an invitation to become a drawing master at a military establishment. This he rejected, having now set himself a more ambitious goal. Constable returned one day from Beaumont's collection 'with a deep conviction', he told Dunthorne, 'of the truth of Sir Joshua Reynolds's observation that "there is no easy way of becoming a good painter". It can only be obtained by long contemplation and incessant labour in the executive part ... I shall shortly, return to Bergholt, where I shall make some laborious studies from nature - and I shall endeavour to get a pure and unaffected representation of the scenes that may employ me'. He continued to make outdoor oil studies until the 1820S. Tentative at first, and carrying overtones of Claude and Gainsborough, his sketching had become by about 1810 a fluent and distinctly personal means of getting at his material, as can be seen from such examples in the Gallery as 'A Lane near Flatford and Dedham from near Gun Hill, Langham'. His great friend Archdeacon John Fisher found a parallel in Gilbert White's method of 'narrowly observing & noting down all the natural occurrences that came within his view', but the entries on natural phenomena in Coleridge's notebooks are perhaps still closer to the spirit of Constable's observations. The end to which his studies (in pencil as well as oil) were directed was the production of paintings for exhibition and, Constable hoped, for sale. The connection between the two types of work was, however, rarely simple. Many of Constable's compositions had their beginning in studies made years before, which he took up and further modified in studio sketches before proceeding to the final canvas. The Tate Gallery's 'Glebe Farm' paintings of about 1830, for example, derive from an oil sketch made around 1810-15, while 'The Valley Farm' of 1835 can be traced back through various intermediary stages to a drawing of about 1812.

"In his exhibition pieces Constable tried to synthesise the particular knowledge gained through his outdoor sketches and to realise those larger images of his native countryside which had preoccupied him, he said, even before he became a painter. Unfortunately, few others understood or appreciated what he was up to. His first major Suffolk landscape, 'Dedham Vale: Morning', was shown at the Academy in 1811 but passed unnoticed. His first sale to a stranger came only in 1814, when the bookseller James Carpenter gave him twenty guineas and some books for his previous year's production. To professional worries were added the frustrations of his long drawn-out engagement to Maria Bicknell, whose family opposed their marriage.

"Finding only occasional buyers for his landscapes, Constable was forced to supplement the allowance he received from his parents by undertaking portrait commissions and other 'jobs'. One of his earliest and largest efforts of this kind was the group portrait of the Bridges family, painted in 1804, while his later portraiture is represented in the Tate by pictures of Dr and Mrs Andrews. Faced with more sympathetic sitters, Constable revealed considerable potential in this field, as his portrait of Maria Bicknell shows. This was painted in 1816, a few months before they married. With a new confidence (and soon to be relieved of some of his financial worries), Constable set his sights even higher. Although 'Flatford Mill', exhibited in 1817, remained on his hands, he began the first of his six-foot canvases of river subjects, 'The White Horse', showing it at the Academy in 1819. This time his work was, his biographer C. R. Leslie remarked, 'too large to remain unnoticed'. Constable was finally elected an A.R.A. later that year, at the age of forty-three. Fisher bought both this painting and its successor, 'Stratford Mill'. The next two pictures in the series, 'The Hay Wain' and 'View on the Stour near Dedham' went to the Parisian dealer Arrowsmith in 1824 and created a lively, if short-lived, interest in France.

"In the construction of these large compositions Constable found the need of some intermediate stage between his small oil studies and the final canvases. Working on a canvas the same size as the final one, he tried to correlate the mass of diverse material that he wanted to utilise. The last work for which he painted one of these full-size, trial sketches appears to have been 'Hadleigh Castle', shown in 1829; the sketch is in the Tate.

"Although Constable never lost his affection for the scenery of the Suffolk-Essex border, he gradually extended the range of his subject matter. His visits, in particular, to Salisbury, where his friend Fisher lived and to Brighton, where he took Maria for the sake of her health, provided him with much new material. But it was Hampstead that became the main focus of his later work. The Constables first took a house there, in addition to their London home, in 1819. Thereafter they rented a house at Hampstead for part of each year, except 1824, finally acquiring a more permanent home there in 1827. In his painting Constable familiarised himself with Hampstead Heath by making innumerable studies of the same scenes under different conditions. The views westward from the heath, looking towards Harrow for example, were tried again and again, in much the same way that in earlier years he had repeatedly studied the view from Langham, looking down to Dedham and the Stout estuary. But at Hampstead Constable became more acutely conscious of weather as a continuous phenomenon, for ever altering the appearance of the landscape: he became, indeed, more aware of the changefulness of nature as a whole. In 1821 and 1822 he undertook an intense study of the most transient of all natural phenomena, the sky, producing dozens of cloud sketches, annotating them with precise details of time, wind direction and so on. In his larger paintings of the late 1820s and 1830s placid summer scenes gave way to more unsettled conditions: a choppy sea and figures scurrying before the wind in 'Chain Pier, Brighton' - the first glints of sunrise after a stormy night in 'Hadleigh Castle'; and in 'Salisbury Cathedral, from the Meadows', for which the Tate has a small sketch, the cathedral rising defiantly through thunder clouds while a rainbow arches overhead. Constable increasingly identified his own states of mind with these restless phenomena. When Maria died of tuberculosis in 1828 he felt that 'the face of the World is totally changed to me'. The following year, at the age of fifty-two, Constable was at last elected to full membership of the Royal Academy, only to be told by its President that he was 'peculiarly fortunate' to be chosen when there were History Painters on the list. In an attempt to counter the neglect and misunderstanding of his art he collaborated with David Lucas on a series of mezzotints after his works, accompanied by explanatory texts. Meeting failure even here, Constable wrote to Leslie: 'every gleam of sunshine is blighted to me in the art at least. Can it therefore be wondered at that I paint continual storms?'."

- From "Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion", by Simon Wilson

Further reading on John Constable:

  • John Constable: The Man and His Art, by Ronald Parkinson. An overview of Constable's career from the Victoria and Albert Museum.

  • Constable: The Painter and His Landscape, by Michael Rosenthal. Pays homage to Constable as one of the greatest painters of landscapes.

  • Constable, by John Sunderland. An economical introduction from Phaidon's "Colour Library" series.

  • Constable, by Michael Rosenthal. From Thames & Hudson's "World of Art" series, small format, primarily biographical.

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John Constable Images

1810 A View on the Stour
1812 Flatford Lock and Mill
1814 Stour Valley and Dedham Church
1816 Wivenhoe Park, Essex
1819 The White Horse
1819 The White Horse (detail)
c. 1820 Dedham Lock and Mill
1820 Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Grounds
1821 Hampstead Heath, Looking Towards Harrow
1821 Harnham Gate, Salisbury
1821 Study of Clouds at Hampstead
1822 Cloud Study
c. 1823-24 The Lock
1824 Gillingham Mill
c. 1824-28 Rainstorm off the Coast at Brighton
1825-26 Helmingham Dell
1826 The Cornfield
1827 Chain Pier, Brighton
1828 Branch Hill Pond, Hampstead Heath
1829 Hadleigh Castle
1829 The Opening of Waterloo Bridge
c. 1830 The Glebe Farm
c. 1834 On the Stour
1837 Arundel Mill and Castle

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