Landscape is my Mistress

John Constable by Ramsay Richard Reinagle, 1799. Oil on canvas. The National Portrait Gallery, London, UK

Artist: John Constable
Born: 11 June 1776, Suffolk, England
Nationality: English
Movement: Romanticism, The Sublime in Art, Landscape Painters, British Art
Died: 31 March 1837, London, England

Constable, along with JMW Turner, revolutionized landscape painting of the 19th century. His paintings had a profound and far-reaching effect on European art. Moving away from the idealized landscapes, Constable favoured realistic depictions of the natural world through close observation.

Constable’s bucolic images painted around the Stour Valley are the most famous paintings, but he also produced portraits and sketches in which he experimented with freer styles of representation allowing him to capture effects of elemental change with spontaneity which he transferred to his finished works.

Dedham Vale by John Constable, 1802. Oil on canvas. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK

A pioneering advocate of realistic depictions of the natural world Constable rejected the contemporary styles of landscape painting. He created his own distinct manner and style based on transferring what he saw ad truthfully as possible. Fascinated by the changing patterns of clouds, weather and light, Constable sought to capture these moments in oil with large, loose brushstrokes to create expressive images representing an overall sense of what he saw rather than fine detail.

Constable abandoned the traditional invisible brushstrokes in his completed works going against the tradition of Academic art at the time. He applied paint in a range of ways including a palette knife giving his canvases a textured and imperfect finish enhancing their realism. He also utilized colour more widely than was traditional, reflecting the hues in nature. In particular, his unique addition of pure white highlights with which he represented the sparkle of light on water.

Maria Bicknell by John Constable, 1816. Oil on canvas. Tate, London, UK

Born in the village of East Bergholt, Suffolk, Constable was the son of wealthy corn merchants who owned Flatford Mill and later Dedham Mill in Essex. His older brother suffered from seizures and was considered unfit to succeed into the family business. After leaving school in Dedham, Constable joined his father in business, a role he had limited aptitude or enthusiasm. As a youth, Constable would travel the countryside surrounding his home on sketching trips, landscape sketches that later became the focus of his art.

In 1799 Constable’s father let him pursue a career as an artist. With a small allowance, he entered the Royal Academy Schools where he studied life drawing and became familiar with the work of the Old Masters. After his training, he declined the position of drawing master at Great Marlow Military School, to become a professional landscape painter. He started exhibiting at the Royal Academy in 1802.

The White Horse by John Constable, 1819. Oil on canvas. The Frick Collection, New York, USA

Except for a tour of the Lake District in 1806, Constable spent his summers sketching and painting around East Bergholt, returning to London in the winter. He was unable to find buyers for his landscapes and took up portraiture to supplement his income. Compared to the pleasure he found in landscape painting he found the process of portrait painting tedious and dull. In 1811, Constable visited friends, Bishop John Fisher and his family, in Salisbury. Fisher became one of Constable’s patrons and Salisbury inspired some of his best-known works.

Constable proposed to Maria Bicknell in 1809. Her grandfather forbade the match and threatened maria with disinheritance. Unable to support wife and family on his income, the couple maintained a secret correspondence relationship until the death of Constable’s father in 1816. His father made provision for each of his children and his brother continued to run the business for the family benefit. This finally provided the financial stability for marriage. The couple honeymooned in Dorset followed by a tour of the south coast of England. It was sketching the sea at Brighton and Weymouth that inspired Constable to adopt a freer brushwork and to experiment with emotional intensity in his work. The couple returned to London initially in Bloomsbury, before moving to Hampstead in 1819.

The Hay Wain by John Constable, 1821. Oil on canvas. The National Gallery, London, UK

Constable scraped an income as a painter until matters improved in 1819 when he sold his first important work, The White Horse. The same year he was elected as Associate of the Royal Academy. In 1821 Constable exhibited The Hay Wain at the Royal Academy. It was shown again at the 1924 Paris Salon with two other pieces of his work. It was awarded a gold medal at the Salon from Charles X. Despite greater success in France, Constable refused to travel to promote his work.

Maria, Constable’s wife, suffered ill health from childhood and it plagued her for most of her life. Following the advice of physicians Constable took his family to Brighton in 1824 to enjoy the fresh sea air. Maria’s health improved and they maintained lodgings in the town for the next four years. Constable loved the surrounding landscapes and painted a range of experimental oil sketches.

Rainstorm over the Sea by John Constable, 1824-28. Oil on paper laid on canvas. Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK

Constable was compared with Turner throughout his life and the two maintained a lively and friendly rivalry. Turner painted in the academic style and was welcomed into the establishment of English art early on in his career. Later he developed his own style and diverged into more impressionistic work. Similarities can be seen between the style of Constable’s oil sketches and Turner’s later work but their aims deviated. In contrast to Constable’s studious approach, Turner chose his subjects, lighting and compositions for dramatic effect using his art as a means to comment on contemporary issues and create an emotional response in the viewer rather than seeking the truth of what he saw.

In 1828 Maria’s father died, her inheritance meant that the Constables financial worries were over. It was a short-lived happiness, Maria, weakened after the birth of their seventh child, died of tuberculosis in November 1828, aged 41. Constable was bereft.

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows by John Constable, 1831. Oil on canvas. Tate, London, UK

In February 1829 Constable was elected to the Royal Academy at 52 years of age. He never recovered from the death of his wife and struggled with the responsibility of raising their seven children. He painted his final six-foot canvas Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows in 1831. He spent his final years lecturing on landscape painting at the Royal Institution, the Hampstead and Literary and Scientific Society and the Worcester Athenaeum. Constable died in his studio in 1837.

©JG Farmer 2021

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