John Constable was one of England’s most influential and talented landscape painters of the 19th century
John Constable is today recognised as the major English landscape painter of the 19th century, matched only by his contemporary, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). But for all that, he was not particularly successful, either critically or financially, during his lifetime.
Born in East Bergholt, Sussex, on 11th June 1776, he was the second son of the six children of Golding Constable (a miller) and Ann Watts. He was educated at a private school in Lavenham and at the grammar school in Dedham. He was taught the technique of painting by John Dunthorne, a local plumber and glazier who was an amateur painter. Then in 1796, while staying with relatives at Edmonton, he met John Cranch (a mediocre artist whose style he emulated) and John Thomas Smith, an antiquarian draftsman, with whom he made drawings of picturesque cottages.
His family had hoped that young Constable would follow in his father’s footsteps, but the art patron Sir George Beaumont (1753-1827) stepped in to persuade them to allow their son to join the Royal Academy Schools in London.
Here he was encouraged by Benjamin West (1738-1820), the history and portrait painter, and began to study nature, devoting himself almost exclusively to painting landscapes. He also exhibited his first picture here in 1802.
In 1809 he met and fell in love with Maria Bicknell, but was unable to marry her until 1816, owing to the hostility of Maria’s grandfather. Following the marriage the couple lived in London, first on Keppel Street, then on Charlotte Street after 1822.
The marriage, which was the prelude to Constable’s finest work, was an intensely happy one, and produced seven children, to whom he was completely devoted. Sadly, Maria was never particularly healthy and died in 1828. Constable never fully recovered from the shock.
Initially, Constable worked in the manner of Gainsborough (1727-88) but gradually developed his own unique style of communicating humble subjects and nature, so as to appear unpretentious and without what he was fond of calling “fal-de-lal” or “fiddle-de-dee”. Although this gained him little recognition in England, the French were impressed with his work and his reputation grew rapidly in the Paris Salon. Indeed, one of his most famous paintings, the Hay Wain (1821), was an enormous influence on the modern school of landscape painters and he was admired by Delacroix and Bonington among others. In spite of this, Constable never ventured abroad, producing his finest works in the places he knew best.
After his marriage, he returned to Suffolk less often, but became more familiar with the south of England, visiting Salisbury, Brighton, Arundel and Petworth on numerous occasions between 1824 and 1835. All these visits, which allowed him to acquaint himself with the surrounding country, were productive of pictures.
When his father-in-law died in 1828, Constable inherited £20,000 (a tidy sum in those days), which allowed him to devote every waking hour to his work. From then on he was able to fully express his intense love for the countryside and experiment with changing light and the movement of clouds across the sky.
Although his latter years were dogged by bereavements, poor health and depression, he continued to work steadily – even though his landscapes were often unsold – and was finally elected a full Royal Academician in 1829.
He died at Hampstead on 31st March 1837, leaving behind him a wealth of pictures that captured momentary changes in the weather and monumental images of English scenery. Today many of his finest landscapes, such as The Valley Farm and The Haywain, hang in London’s National Gallery, while others can be viewed in the Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Although the most appropriate memorial to the man and his work is undoubtedly in his native Sussex, in the Stour valley, which is now known as ‘Constable Country’.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "John Constable: The Man and His Work" https://englishhistory.net/georgian/john-constable/, February 8, 2022