1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Constable, John
CONSTABLE, JOHN (1776–1837), English landscape painter, was born at East Bergholt in Suffolk on the 11th of June 1776. His father was a man of some property, including water-mills at Dedham and Flatford, and two windmills, in which John, the second son, was set to work at the age of seventeen, after leaving Dedham grammar school. From boyhood he was devoted to painting, which he studied in his spare time in company with John Dunthorne, a local plumber and glazier. While working thus he made the acquaintance of Sir George Beaumont, a mediocre painter but a keen patron of the arts, and was inspired by the sight of Claude’s “Hagar and Ishmael” and by some drawings of Girtin which Sir George possessed. His passion for art increasing, he was allowed by his father to visit London in 1795 to consult the landscape-painter Joseph Farington, R. A. (1747–1821), who recognized his originality and gave him some technical hints. He also made the acquaintance of the engraver J. T. Smith, who taught him etching, and corresponded with him during the next few years, which were spent partly in London and partly in Suffolk. In 1797 he was recalled to work in his father’s counting-house at Bergholt, and it was not till February 1799 that he definitely adopted the profession of painting, and became a student at the Royal Academy. The few existing works of this period are heavy, clumsy and amateurish. Recognizing their faults, Constable worked hard at copying old masters “to acquire execution.” The remedy was effective, for his sketches on a tour in Derbyshire in 1801 show considerable freshness and accomplishment. In 1802 he exhibited at the Royal Academy, and was much helped and encouraged by the president, Benjamin West, who did him a further service by preventing him from accepting a drawing-mastership (offered by Archdeacon Fisher, of Salisbury), and thereby greatly stimulating his efforts. The manner of West appears strongly in the altarpiece painted by Constable for Brantham church in 1804, but Gainsborough, the Dutch masters and Girtin are the predominant influences upon his landscape, especially Girtin in the year 1805, and in 1806, when he visited the Lake District. From 1806 to 1809 Constable was frequently engaged in painting portraits or in copying portraits by Reynolds and Hoppner. The effect on his landscape was great. He learned how to construct an oil painting, and the efforts of the next few years were devoted to combining this knowledge with his innate love of the fresh colour of nature.
With the year 1811 began a critical period. He exhibited a large view of Dedham Vale, in which the characteristic features of his art appear for the first time almost fully developed, and he became attached to Miss Maria Bicknell. His suit was opposed by the lady’s relatives, and Constable’s apparently hopeless prospects drove him again to portrait-painting, in which he acquired considerable skill. It was not till the death of his father in 1816 that he was able to marry and settle in No. 1 Keppel Street, Russell Square, where a succession of works now well known were painted: “Flatford Mill” (1817), “A Cottage in a Cornfield,” and in 1819 “The White Horse,” which was bought by his great friend Archdeacon Fisher for £105, as was the “Stratford Mill” of 1820. In 1819 two legacies each of £4000 diminished his domestic anxieties, and his talent was recognized by his election in November to the associateship of the Royal Academy. The series of important works was continued by “The Haywain” (1821), “A View on the Stour” (1822), “Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Garden” (1823), and “The Lock” (1824). This last year was a memorable one. “The Haywain” was sold to a Frenchman, was exhibited at the Louvre, and, after creating a profound sensation among French artists, was awarded a gold medal. In the following year “The White Horse” won a similar distinction at Lille. In 1825 he exhibited “The Leaping Horse” (perhaps his masterpiece), in 1826 “The Cornfield,” in 1827 “The Marine Parade and Chain Pier, Brighton,” and in 1828 “Dedham Vale.”
In 1822 Constable had taken Farington’s house, 35 Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square, but his wife’s failing health made him turn his attention to Hampstead, and after temporary occupation first of 2 Lower Terrace and then of a house on Downshire Hill, he took No. 6 Well Walk, in 1827, letting the greater part of his London house. In 1828 his financial position was made secure by a legacy of £20,000 from Mr Bicknell, but the death of his wife towards the end of the year was a shock from which he never wholly recovered. His election to membership of the Academy in the following year did not lessen his distress: he felt that the honour had been delayed too long. His chief exhibit in 1829 was “Hadleigh Castle,” and this was succeeded by the great “Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows” (1831), “The Opening of Waterloo Bridge” (1832), which had been begun in 1817, “Englefield House” (1833), “The Valley Farm” (1835), “The Cenotaph” (1836), and “Arundel Mill and Castle” (1837). Constable had long suffered from rheumatism and nervous depression, but his sudden death on the 31st of March 1837 could be traced to no definite disease. He was buried in Hampstead churchyard, where his tomb may still be seen.
In May 1838 his remaining works were sold at auction, but fetched very small prices. Many were bought in by his children, and through their generosity have passed to the English nation, as the national collections at Trafalgar Square, Millbank and South Kensington testify. Nowhere else can Constable’s art be studied completely or safely, since forgeries and imitations are common and have crept into the Louvre and other famous galleries. Much of the power of his work survives in the noble series of mezzotints made after his sketches by David Lucas, and first issued in 1833. Though a commercial failure at the time of publication, this English Landscape series is now deservedly prized, as are the other plates which Lucas engraved after Constable. Constable himself made a few desultory experiments in etching, but they are of no importance.
As already indicated, the mature art of Constable did not develop till after the year 1811, when he began to combine the fresh colour of nature, which he had learned to depict by working in the open air, with the art of making a picture, which he had learned from painting portraits and copying those of other masters. His development was unusually slow, and his finest work, with but few exceptions, was done between his fortieth and fiftieth years (1816–1826). During the last twelve years of his life his manner became more free, and the palette knife was constantly used to apply spots and splashes of pure colour, so that his technique often suggests that afterwards employed by the Impressionists. Yet his direct influence upon French landscape has sometimes been overrated. When Constable first exhibited at the Salon in 1825 Theodore Rousseau, the pioneer of French naturalism, was only twelve years old, and the movement of 1830 was really originated in France by Gros and Géricault, while in England the water-colour painters led the way. Constable’s death in 1837 removed the man and most of his work from the public eye for another generation, and he became a famous shadow rather than a living force. So Monet and the Impressionists, when they sought after the secret of painting air and sunshine, looked to Turner rather than to Constable, and in England the eloquence of Ruskin pointed in the same direction.
Since the British nation came into the possession of a large portion of Constable’s pictures and sketches, his work has been better understood. Though limited in range of subject to the scenery of Suffolk, Hampstead, Salisbury and Brighton, his sketches express the tone, colour, movement and atmosphere of the scenes represented with unrivalled force and truthfulness, and modern criticism tends to rate their spontaneity above the deliberate accomplishment of his large finished works. His treatment of skies is specially notable. Here his early experience as a miller told in his favour. No one has painted English cloud effects so truthfully, or used them as a compositional quantity with so much skill. Though in looking at nature he was determined to see with his own eyes and not with those of any former master, he found that the science of his predecessors was necessary to him before his sketches could be translated into large pictures. In these pictures his vivid tones and fresh colour are grafted upon the formulae of Claude and Rubens, and it is a common error to regard Constable as an opponent of the great old masters. His pictures, like his writings and lectures, prove just the reverse. His dislike was reserved for the painters who took their ideas from other painters instead of getting them directly from nature.