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Constable – “We see nothing till we truly understand it”

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Wivenhoe Park with its boaters and swans, cows and clouds and shadows, 1816, National Gallery, Washington.

David recently posted on Sir Edwin Manton, who was a collector of Constable's work. We hadn't written about Constable yet, so this seemed a good time to describe an artist whose paintings we love and whose life story is more fascinating than we knew.

John Constable was not a natural-born genius. His effort to make himself a painter would entail years of unrelenting work, the consummation of love, and a daring, breathtaking gesture.

Born in 1776, Constable grew up exploring and sketching the Stour Valley, East Anglia, his boyhood home and the place now known as Constable Country. He was the fourth child (the number of famous Brits who would never have been born in two-child families is remarkable), and he dreamed he would become an artist. Pressed to become a clergyman, Constable resisted. But when he was sixteen and it became clear his elder brother could not manage the family’s corn and coal trade he reluctantly signed on. For several years he studied the business side of the Stour’s watermills, locks, barges, and towpaths. He sketched whenever he could.

When he was 20 he met Sir George Beaumont, a painter and patron who would later establish the National Academy. Beaumont reignited his passion for painting, but there was little he could do about it. At 22 he dejectedly faced the fact he was tied to his father’s business. Two years later, in 1799, he was unexpectedly released. His younger brother joined the firm, and his parents gave him a small allowance to study art in London. With the help of Beaumont and a few friends, Constable entered the Royal Academy School and began to copy master paintings, drawings, and prints.

By 1802, he was making artistic progress, but little in the way of income, and his parents urged him to make some money. Constable painted a few portraits, but stubbornly turned down a job teaching drawing at a military school. “It would have been a death blow to all my prospects of perfection in the Art I love,” he wrote a friend (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). After ten years, his parents were increasingly worried. He had exhibited at the Royal Academy. He was exploring interesting techniques, but he had not been accepted as an associate of the Academy and he was not earning a living. About this time he fell in love. He was thirty-three. Maria Bicknell was twenty-one. Her family was implacably opposed to the marriage.

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East Bergholt Church. 1811. Watercolour on paper. The Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, UK. Constable presented this drawing of the church to Maria’s grandfather, who was rector. Not surprisingly, it did little to change the old man’s mind.

Constable’s mother advised him to pursue his goals with Christian fortitude, patience, and diligence, and for heaven’s sake earn the money he needed to get married. He had always wanted to paint country scenes, and though this was the least profitable art form then available, Constable decided to stake his life and his love on it.

It was an astonishing decision, but it made emotional sense. He wanted to praise what he loved. As CS Lewis blithely puts it, “It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. . .” Constable wanted to express his bursting passion for the country and woman he loved. He began to paint outdoors. His studies intensified. His brushwork became “urgent” (DNB). He was determined to become an associate of the Royal Academy though his application in 1810 had not received a single vote.

He was still struggling in 1814. He wrote his uncle, who had sent him a kind but critical letter, “I know I have great deficiencies and that I have not yet, in a single instance, realised my ideas of art.” Ouch.

He pushed on, always working, always trying to improve, but he got nowhere with the Royal Academy whose approval he needed in order to sell his paintings. The Academy regarded his small rural scenes as almost beneath notice. It mattered little to them that over years of dedicated work "he had amassed an almost encyclopaedic visual record of whatever caught his eye” – animals, men and women, trees, homes, churches, boats, clouds, rivers (DNB). His new-found mastery is revealed in the painting Wivenhoe Park (above).

Though he was still not earning much, the death of his parents gave him a small annual income, and Constable persuaded Maria that they could defy her family. They married. Aged forty, Constable had finally achieved a private happiness that would help to unleash all his artistic power and passion. In 1817 they had their first child, and he “was seen almost as often in his father's arms as in his mother's: ‘His fondness for children,” a friend wrote, exceeded, indeed, that of any man I ever knew’” (DNB).

The members of the Academy had not been interested in the natural truth and the marvellous movements of nature in Constable’s paintings, but they were about to learn to care. In 1819, Constable made the daring gesture that transfixed the Academy. Once again he painted a rural scene and once again he brought it to the Academy, hoping it would be exhibited. The painting showed a white horse being ferried by three men across a river with a humble farm scene on the opposite shore, and cows standing in the water under a lowering sky. The energetic brushwork for which he was known, his fidelity to what he saw, and the truthful affection that suffused his paintings were all here. There was just one sublime difference.

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A Scene on the River Stour, The White Horse, Frick Collection, New York

Constable had made the painting six feet by four. The White Horse was the first of his six-footers, and was based on an original breakthrough in his working methods which involved sketching outdoors then working on an intermediary full-scale oil sketch to test and rework composition, colours, and light.

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Detail from The White Horse

The Academy was staggered, and elected him an associate member. The exhibition of his six-footers brought him new clients and recognition, particularly in France, where his paintings fascinated Gericault and influenced Delacroix. (Later they would inspire the Hudson River School painters and the Impressionists Monet and Pissarro.)

Moving his family to Hampstead Heath so his wife could be more comfortable, Constable made numerous studies of the skies. (To his great friend Fisher he referred to this as ‘skying’.) He was aware of Luke Howard’s studies of clouds – Howard had recently named all the clouds and their associated weather patterns. Uniquely Constable painted by uniting his scientific insights with the eye of his heart.

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Landscape: Noon (‘The Hay Wain’), 1821, another six-footer, warmed by Constable's affection for English country, the Tate, London

For awhile, Constable was more famous in France than in England. The English wondered at his bold impasto, loose handling of paint, and unorthodox colours. The Academy still declined to make him a full member. His sales were barely keeping up with his expenses.

A seventh child was born to the Constables in 1827. Their marriage was happy, but Maria was suffering from consumption. In 1828 she died, leaving Constable with seven children under the age of eleven. He was devastated. A few months later he was elected a full member of the Academy, but it no longer mattered to him. His painting Hadleigh Castle expresses his desolation.

In the next decade, supported by an inheritance, he cared for his children, published mezzotints and explained his ideas. He served as director of the Artists' General Benevolent Institution, which helped poor artists. He painted but did not sell his paintings. This would prove to be a boon to his country.

In 1837, returning from a charitable errand, Constable became ill and died the next morning. The cause was not determined. A broken heart seems likely.

Constable's children inherited much of his life’s work. Because he had sold so little during his lifetime, they were able to bequeath his paintings and drawings to the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum, the National Gallery, and the Royal Academy, where they are conservatively valued at £hundreds of millions.

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