1902 Encyclopedia > John Constable
English landscape painter
JOHN CONSTABLE (1776-1837), landscape painter, was born at East Bergholt, in the Stour valley, Suffolk, June 11, 1776.
Under the guidance of a certain John Dunthune, a plumber, he acquired in early life some insight into the first principle of landscape art, altogether with a habit of studying in the open air that was afterwards of much service to him.
His father, who was a yeoman farmer, did not care to encourage this tendency, and set him to work in one of his windmills. The incessant watchfulness of the weather which this occupation required laid the foundation of that wonderful knowledge of atmospheric changes and effects of which his works give evidence.
The Hay Wain
Oil painting on canvas. 1821.
From an introduction to Sir George Beaumout, an amiable man but a poor pointer, he became acquainted with the works of Claude and Girtin.
In 1795 he was sent to London with a letter to Farington, the landscape painter. Farington encouraged him with predictions of coming eminence; and for two years he plodded on, drawing, cottages, studying anatomy, and copying and painting, sometimes in London and sometimes in Suffolk. His progress, however, was not encouraging; and in 1797 he returned home, and for some time worked in his fathers counting-house.
In 1799 he again went to London to perfect himself as a painter; and on the 4th of February he was admitted a student of the Royal Academy. The lights and shadows of his studies from the antique at this period are praised by Leslie, but they were sometimes defective in outline. He worked from drawn till dusk, and was an untiring copyist of such masters as he had sympathy with, as Wilson, Ruysdael, and Claude. Drawings from nature made during the next year or two, in Suffolk or in Derbyshire, were of no great promise. Being naturally slow, he was yet grouping blindly for something not to be found for many years.
In 1802 he attended Brookes anatomical lectures, exhibited his first picture, and refusing a drawing mastership offered him by Dr Fisher, gave himself wholly to his vocation. He exhibited a number of paintings during the next eight years, but it was not till 1811 that he gave to the world, in his Dedham Vale, the first work in which his distinctive manner and excellences are evident.
In 1816, having inherited £4000 on his fathers death, he emerged from a painful state of poverty with which he had been struggling, and married.
In 1818 he exhibited four of his finest works; and next year he sent to Somerset House the largest picture he had yet painted, the landscape known as Constables White Horse. In the November following he was made associated of the Academy. His power at this time, though unrecognized, was at its highest.
In 1823, however, after the exhibition of such masterpieces as the Stratford Mill, The Hay Cart [The Hay Wain], and the Salisbury Cathedral, he did not disdain to copy two Claudes. In 1824 two of his larger pictures, which he sold, were taken to Paris, and created there a profound sensation. Allowing a great deal for the influence of Bonington, who died four years afterwards, much of the best in contemporary French landscape may be said to date from them. Constable received a gold medal from Charles X., and his pictures were honourably hung in the Louvre.
In 1825, he painted his Lock ("silvery, windy, delicious" is his own description of it), and sent his White Horse to Lille for exhibition. It made, like the others, a great impression, and procured the painter a second gold medal. Other great works followed; and in 1829 he was elected Academician, to the astonishment and ill-concealed displeasure of many, and began to devote himself, in conjunction with Lucas, to the preparation of his book of English Landscape Scenery.
Hard work brought on ill-health and low spirits; rheumatism laid hold of him, and for some time he could neither write nor paint. In 1832, however, he exhibited his Waterloo Bridge (painted, said his enemies, with his palette-knife only), with three other pictures and four drawings. In 1834 he painted his Salisbury from the Meadows, more generally known as the Rainbow, a picture he valued greatly; and in 1836 he delivered a course of lectures on his art at the Royal Institution. He died suddenly on the 1st of April 1837, leaving his Arundel Castle and Mill wet on his easel.
The principles on which this great painter worked are not far to seek. He himself had said, "Ideal art in landscape is all nonsense;" and this sentence may be said to sum up the whole of his theory and practice of painting.
Turners pictures to him were merely "golden dreams;" Both and Berghem were only fit for burning; if he proclaimed the greatness of Claude and Titian, it was that he recognized their truth.
Truth in its broadest and finest sense was his only aim. He studied the country untiringly and intently, sacrificing mere detail to the larger necessities of tone ("tone is the most seductive and inviting quality a picture can possess"), reproducing to an eminent degree the sentiment of what he saw, flooding his canvas with light and shadows as one finds them, and faithfully translating such glimpses as were revealed to him of the geniality of nature.
His range was limited; he succeeded best with the country familiar to him from his boyhood; but his repetitions of manner and subject are in reality so many tentatives towards perfection.
His merits were recognized in France; but his studio was full of unsold pictures at his death, and it is certain that he could not have earned a livelihood by his art without abandoning his theories. Since his death, however, his pictures have greatly increased in value; and his influence on contemporary French and English landscape is recognized as both great and good.
See Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, R.A., London, second edition, 1845; and English Landscape Scenery, a Series of Forty Mezzotint Engravings on Steel, by David Lucas, from pictures painted by John Constable, R.A., London, folio, 1855.
See also: British School of Painting