John Constable (1776-1837), one of the greatest English landscape painters, represented the naturalistic aspect of romanticism. His calm, deeply poetic response to nature approximated in painting the insights of William Wordsworth in poetry.
John Constable was born in East Bergholt, Suffolk, on June 11, 1776, the son of a well-to-do mill owner. The lush, well-watered Suffolk landscape with its rolling clouds and generally flat, but in parts undulating, terrain made a deep impression on his imagination, and no painter has referred more frequently to the scenes of his childhood as a recurrent source of inspiration. “Those scenes,” he later wrote to a friend, “made me a painter,” and again, “The sound of water escaping from mill-dams, etc., willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts and brickwork, I love such things.”
Constable was encouraged first by a local amateur and later by his friend Sir George Beaumont, the painter and collector, who advised him to study the watercolors of Thomas Girtin. Constable said that a painting by Claude Lorrain that he saw at this time marked an important epoch in his life. Beaumont’s collection later included the Château de Steen by Peter Paul Rubens, which Constable stable studied closely.
On a visit to London in 1796 Constable met the engraver and antiquary J. T. Smith, under whose influence he made sketches of picturesque cottages. In 1799 Constable became a student at the Royal Academy, where he worked diligently at anatomy under a system of instruction concentrating on the human figure as the basis of history painting.
In 1802 Constable exhibited at the Royal Academy for the first time, declaring his intention to become a “natural painter.” The following year he sailed from London to Deal, making drawings of ships in the tradition of the English Thames Estuary school. “I saw,” Constable wrote to a friend, “all sorts of weather,” and what he described as “the natural history of the skies” became a lifelong object of research, culminating in a series of cloud sketches inspired by the cloud classifications of the meteorologist Luke Howard, who published The Climate of London in 1818-1820.
In 1806 Constable spent 2 months touring the Lake District, and the following year he exhibited three paintings from the trip at the Royal Academy. After this, however, he broke with the tradition of picturesque travel, preferring to paint the scenes he knew and loved best, notably his native Suffolk; Salisbury, where he stayed with his friend Bishop Fisher and his family; Hampstead Heath; and the Thames Estuary.
A happy marriage to Maria Bicknell, with whom Constable fell in love in 1809, was delayed until 1816 by the opposition of her maternal grandfather, the wealthy rector of East Bergholt. From these 7 years of uncertainty date those attacks of nervous depression which were occasionally to cloud a life of otherwise singular felicity.
In 1824 three of Constable’s oil paintings, including The Hay Wain, were exhibited at the Paris Salon, where they were acclaimed by Eugène Delacroix and other painters and won a gold medal. The question of their influence on French contemporaries and ultimately on impressionism has been widely discussed. All that can safely be said is that his break with academic convention made a profound impact and was invoked as a sanction by Delacroix not for imitating the English painter but for greater boldness in his own work.
Constable’s wife, with whom he had seven children, died in 1828, shortly after he inherited a fortune from her father. Constable had been elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1819, and 10 years later he became a full member. He died on March 31, 1837, working on the day before his death on Arundel Mill and Castle.
Constable’s finished landscapes were always greatly admired. He was revolutionary in painting large canvases consistently as sketches, and he later allowed himself considerable painterly freedom in finished pictures, like the magnificent Hadleigh Castle, subtitled Mouth of the Thames, Morning after a Stormy Night. Today it is his large sketchlike paintings that are most sought after, particularly those celebrating the themes that had haunted him from childhood: the mill, the lock, and water reflecting sunlight and clouds.
Constable’s original contribution was to combine a scientific approach to nature with a romantic intensity of feeling. “Painting,” he wrote, “is a science, and should be considered as an enquiry into the laws of nature.” But he described his cloud studies as organs of his sentiment, and in a much-quoted passage declared, “painting is with me but another word for feeling.”
Further Reading on John Constable
The best source for information on Constable is still his own writings. The Letters of John Constable, R. A., to C. R. Leslie, R. A., 1826-1837, edited by Peter Leslie (1931), contains both the letters, rich in observations on nature and art and illustrating Constable’s genius for friendship, and the notes for Constable’s critical lectures on the history of landscape painting delivered to the Royal Institution of Great Britain in 1836. Also extremely useful are R. B. Beckett, John Constable and the Fishers: The Record of a Friendship (1952), and a six-volume edition of Constable’s Correspondence, edited by R. B. Beckett (1962-1968). Besides C. R. Leslie’s classic, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, R. A., Composed Chiefly of His Letters (1943; new ed. 1951), there is a scholarly literature of distinction on Constable. Preeminent is Graham Reynolds, Constable: The Natural Painter (1965). Sydney J. Key, John Constable: His Life and Work (1948), is a sound account. One of the best sources of illustrations, reproducing 597 works, is the Victoria and Albert Museum, Catalogue of the Constable Collection, written by Graham Reynolds (1960). A masterly specialized study, establishing Constable’s relation to both poets and painters, is Kurt Badt, John Constable’s Clouds (trans. 1950).
Additional Biography Sources
Constable, Freda, John Constable: a biography, 1776-1837, Lavenham: Dalton, 1975.
Encyclopedia of World Biography. Copyright 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.