John Constable was an astonishing English landscape painter of Romantic tradition. He was one of the most celebrated artists of his time known for his depiction of landscapes, especially for the campsite depictions of Stour Valley. Constable's production is marked by its apparent distancing from the idealized images of landscapes, delving into the realm of compositions born from real-life observation.
John was born in Suffolk, on the River Stour, in a British village called East Bergholt. His family was very wealthy, as his father, Golding Constable, was the owner of Flatford Mill, which later became Dedham Mill, an enterprise that dealt with corn. Constable's brother, also named Golding, suffered from seizures, which made him seemingly unfit to be responsible for the Constable estate, leaving the responsibility to John. This would eventually become a reason for the pressure around Constable's decision to become a painter.
From an early age, Constable adventured the countryside to find motifs for him to sketch, mostly in Suffolk and Essex. It's safe to assume that these trips would have a long time effect on the young man, shaping his compositions and imagery. The artist expressed his admiration for these natural areas, stating that his amusement in observing them helped turn him into a painter.
Constable began to meet people from the artistic field, like the collector Sir George Beaumont, who was introduced to him by his family and showed him artworks from his collection, including a painting by Claude Lorrain, which inspired the British painter. He also met John Thomas Smith, a painter who discouraged Constable from continuing to paint as a career, stating that he would be better off remaining in his father's business.
Constable officially began studying art in 1799, after he talked his father out of the idea that he would follow in the family business. With his father's financial support, the young artist entered some classes at the Royal Academy School, where he studied painting and anatomy with real cadavers.
Constable's taste for landscapes wasn't fashionable at the time since most art institutions favored history painting. Even though living in London, the painter would spend most of his summers at his village in East Bergholt, returning to his awe-inspiring and familiar scenery to sketch and paint during the season.
By 1802, the artist was already exhibiting his paintings at the Royal Academy gallery. His biggest inspirations were Peter Paul Rubens, Jacob van Ruisdael, Thomas Gainsborough, Annibale Carracci, and he studied by copying many works of past masters. The artist's early landscapes have impeccable compositions inspired by the artworks of Classic masters, but also a freshness translated through light and color - qualities that he maintains until the end of his career.
Unlike other artists of Romanticism, Constable focused on landscapes with scenes of everyday life. He eventually turned to portrait painting to help his financial status since landscapes didn't thrive as well on the market as other genres, although he disliked it tremendously. Very rarely did the artist work with religious themes in his artwork. Constable preferred watercolor to execute his studies during this early period and only started to explore oil painting. Sketching frequently with the medium since 1808, he developed a great intimacy and unique approach with oil for two years.
On one of his occasional visits to East Bergholt, the painter fell in love with his future wife, Maria Elizabeth Bicknell. Her family would confront her about their relationship. She was forbidden to be with him since, at that time, Constable wasn't an established artist and could hardly provide for a family of Bicknell's status. They maintained a secret correspondence because of this.
In 1811, Constable made his first expedition to Salisbury, which he became very passionate about. The landscapes and cathedrals in his new surroundings inspired him to create some of his very best work. On this trip, he visited Bishop Fisher, ex-rector of a church at Essex and soon-to-be one of the painter's patrons. The painter also developed a close friendship with the Bishop's nephew, John Fisher. He would confide much of his impressions on art with his friend - from rabid reactions to criticism, questions, and goals.
By 1814, Constable established the habit of painting easels outdoors, a practice later made common by Modern painters like Vincent Van Gogh. This provoked a more immediate reaction while observing nature and a more intimate relation to it. At this period, the British painter already displayed an astonishing eye for detail and was capable of accurately portraying England's everyday life.
In 1816, Constable was able to come to terms with Maria's family. They married after his father tragically passed away, and the artist inherited part of his estate. One of his brothers, Abram, kept the corn business working while leaving Constable to continue pursuing his career as an artist. During his honeymoon trip, Constable engaged in a more expressive use of the paintbrush, which would later become one of his most impressive and admired traits - a well-tuned balance of detail, accuracy, and the presence of his gesture.
After their marriage, Constable and Maria settled in Bloomsbury, London. The year 1817 was a significant year for the couple, as they had their first child, also named John. His family's growth probably played a substantial part in increasing Constable's urgency to become more commercially present, which made him raise his working scale. It was only in 1819 that the British painter sold his first significant painting, called The White Horse, an impressive 1.27 x 1.83m easel.
He then felt compelled to continue producing large-scale paintings. Not just that, but the Royal Academy elected Constable as an official Associate, a position of status in the Londoner art world. Another significant artwork is The Hay Wain, which was exhibited at the Academy in 1821, as well as winning a gold medal at the Paris Salon three years later, handed by the king of France.
Curiously enough, Constable's work wasn't very popular in England, as it can be noted on the harsh criticism that authors, such as John Ruskin, had towards him. The same cannot be said of France, where he sold many paintings. Still, it can be noted through his correspondence that Constable felt rather attached to his homeland, probably not a matter of sheer nationalism but yet his passion for the countryside and the landscapes that inhabited his childhood and his paintings. It's worth noting that Constable remained a Tory throughout his life, and his political inclinations may have played a part in his choice to stay in England.
Frequently Maria would manifest fragile health, which made doctors suggest that they moved closer to the sea, and consequently, the Constable family moved to Hampstead. The surroundings, a fundamental factor to Constable's paintings, always birthed his keen observation of nature, affecting his new works. During the 20s, the painter enjoyed a successful stream of sales and positive criticism, finally accomplishing his long search for recognition.
The end of the decade was a harsh period compared to a rather productive period. After the couple's last child's birth in 1828, Maria became very ill and passed away at only 41 years of age. In the year after, he was elected as part of the Royal Academy, and once again, a personal victory that came right after a tremendous loss.
Constable, who was described as having a difficult temper, showed constant signs of depressive behavior and accounted for his sadness through correspondence with his brother, Golding. The melancholic behavior also seemed to stem from the increasing incomprehensiveness that he and J. M. W. Turner were suffering. Even though they have radically different works and maintained a certain rivalry - something similar to the Ingres and Delacroix dynamic - the negative critiques aimed at both were not that distinct.
Constable's work was sprung from a cultural context known today as Romanticism. Romanticism, right after Neo-Classicism in art history and historically after the Enlightenment, is a set of sensibilities that advocated against strict rationalism and went in favor of certain intuitiveness. From works as disparate as Thomas Mann's, who worked with eloquent and passionate prose, to Caspar David Friedrich's lonely figures set against breath-taking landscapes, a certain caution or distrust concerning modernity can be observed.
The positivist discourse of science becomes more evident from Modernism onward. The apology of reason and a series of characteristics from the previous periods are carried until modernity and even nowadays. In this sense, few artists could captivate this defense of the intuitive, a truth that can be experienced and felt but not easily instrumentalized as perceived in Constable's work.
Drawing from the sense of ambition and colorful temperament from Rubens and the unique, precursor body of work of Claude Lorrain - truly one of the first painters to go for the same sense of immediate connection of nature - Constable's work radicalized these influences into something new. It's not a surprise that he and Turner were born in the same period, as different as they were. Throughout their works, there is the same desire for nature, aiming at the paintbrush virtuosity aligned with Modernism's emphasis on form. It's not a surprise that Constable himself and Turner were, more often than not, misinterpreted by critics.
In a cultural habitat in which sensations are privileged over reason, where there's a truth to be unveiled, in which creativity and personal struggle all mingle with each other, an artist of Constable's caliber is, if anything, the one to be in dialogue with his own time, predating some of the modernist worries in a time where the reaction to nature is to be studied. Not precisely a movement but a period, Romanticism translated more as a sensibility than a dogma in which you can feel the personality and mood of each artist expressing itself through their work.
Constable's connection with the countryside and life in England can be felt in his attention to the details. From the vegetation to lightning, his precision and ability to depict his country's routine through objects and buildings in his paintings captivate audiences to this day. His faith in painting as a way of unveiling the surface of appearance and striking into some otherworldly truth was a shared sensibility of his time. Still, it was hardly articulated as faith to its belief as it was in his case.
It can be argued that the frequency in which he worked on mutable subjects, such as clouds, lightning, and water predates the Impressionists. His likeness to the avant-garde group was not only thematical but methodical, as Constable had a habit of painting on canvas outdoors. There were also stylistic resemblances, with the use of a palette knife, the abandonment of the invisible brushstroke, and the abundant presence of the gesture in his sketches. The truth that Constable pursued wasn't just a question of technical flair, but it tried to evoke the immediate reaction one has when it's immersed and awestruck by nature.
During his faithful and constant observance of nature, the painter was capable of exploring painterly aspects while refining the use of color and expanding the traditional depiction of landscapes—this technique allowed for more spontaneous use of the brush, with broader strokes and color fragmentation. These elements would create a positive reaction from the following generation of artists. The painter's influence can be felt in the works of Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, and Jean-François Milliet, and even much later, the artist Lucian Freud stated that he not only admired Constable's landscapes as he also was drawn towards his portraits.
By the end of his artistic career, Constable gave lectures about landscape and history painting, as well as speaking of art and poetics in general, stating that to be a great painter, you mustn't be self-taught. The outstanding landscape painter John Constable passed away in 1837, in London, England. Constable became especially important for he is often considered one of the responsible for the revival of landscape painting during the 19th Century.
"The sound of water escaping from mill dams, willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts, and brickwork, I love such things."
"Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature."
"My picture is liked at the Academy. Indeed it forms a decided feature, and its light cannot be put out because it is the light of nature[…] My execution annoys most of them and all the scholastic ones—perhaps the sacrifices I make for lightness and brightness is [sic]too much, but these things are the essence of a landscape."
- John Constable