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John Constable

British Painter

John Constable Photo
Born: June 11, 1776
East Bergholt, Suffolk, England
Died: March 31, 1837
London, England
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Landscape is my mistress - 't is to her that I look for fame - and all that the warmth of the imagination renders dear to Man.
John Constable Signature

Summary of John Constable

Along with J. M. W. Turner, Constable revolutionized landscape painting of the 19th century and his paintings had a profound and far-reaching effect on European art, particularly in France. Constable moved away from the highly idealized landscapes that were the expected norm of the period and instead favored realistic depictions of the natural world created through close observation. Constable is most clearly remembered for his bucolic images painted in and around the Stour Valley but he also produced over 100 portraits and a huge number of preparatory sketches often completed in oil. In these he experimented with a freer style of representation and this allowed him to capture the effects of elemental change on the countryside with a spontaneity which he was then able to transfer to his finished works. Although his sketches are considerably more impressionistic and less detailed than his display canvases his overall aim remained the same regardless of medium and technique - to depict the scenery that he saw in a truthful and realistic manner.

Key Ideas

Biography of John Constable

John Constable Photo

Born in East Bergholt, a village in Suffolk, England, John Constable was the second son of Golding and Ann (née Watts), wealthy corn merchants who owned Flatford Mill in East Bergholt and later Dedham Mill in Essex. Constable's older brother (also called Golding) was subject to seizures and was considered unfit to succeed his father into the family business. The task consequently fell to John and after leaving his school in Dedham, Constable joined his father in the corn business, a role for which he had limited enthusiasm and aptitude. Despite his disability Golding Jnr went onto to become a land warden and the two brothers remained close throughout their lives. Constable had five siblings in total, three sisters and another brother, Abram, who was the youngest member of the family.

Important Art by John Constable

Dedham Vale (1802)

Dedham Vale (1802)

This was one of Constable's first major paintings, created when he was 26. Painted in the brief hiatus between the end of the French revolutionary wars and the beginning of the Napoleonic wars the following year, the tranquillity of the image belies the wider political turmoil. Whilst the techniques that were to serve Constable so well in his later career are not yet fully developed the painting already demonstrates his commitment to the close observation of nature and this can be seen in the detailed rendering of the trees and sky.

The eye is led across the painting from the foreground along the route of the river to the distant tower of Dedham church, which although small, forms a clear focal point for the painting. The trees on either side of the canvas form a frame to the central part of the image presenting the view in the form of a smaller cameo and further serves to focus the eye on a building that would have been a landmark of Constable's childhood.

The composition with the trees in the foreground framing the image to the right closely mirrors the arrangement of Lorrain's work Hagar and the Angel (1646) and it is likely that Constable was inspired by the piece that played a formative role in his early art appreciation and education.

26 years later Constable created a second image of the same view called The Vale of Dedham (1828), although very similar in appearance there are a number of small differences that separate the two, particularly the inclusion of figures in the later painting.

Maria Bicknell (1816)

Maria Bicknell (1816)

Painted in July 1816 around three months before their marriage, Constable kept this portrait of his fiancée with him, writing to her that "I would not be without your portrait for the world the sight of it soon calms my spirit under all trouble and it is always the first thing I see in the morning and the last at night". The portrait was said to be a remarkably good likeness and the fine and detailed finish of Maria's face contrasts with the looser brushstrokes which make up the background and her blouse.

Whilst Constable created over 100 portraits in his career, most were painted out of financial necessity rather than a love of the genre. Despite this, many are refreshingly honest in their depictions and there is a real sense of character and personality in the images that he created and he did not sanitize quirks of appearance to bring images in line with contemporary beauty standards. This portrait has a particular sensitivity and warmth to it and this must be attributed to his intimate relationship with the sitter.

Parallels can be drawn between this image and many of his other portraits both in the use of similarly colored, neutral backgrounds and the composition of the sitters. His representation of faces was always closely detailed but his approach to the sitter's clothes seems to vary with his relationship to the individual concerned. Some garments are closely rendered whilst others are suggested through much freer brushstrokes as in this portrait, this can be attributed to the commission basis of his work and paintings for patrons were likely to be more highly finished.

The White Horse (1819)

The White Horse (1819)

The White Horse, originally titled A Scene on the River Stour was the first of Constable's large canvases (6'x4') known as the six-footers. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1819 and its critical success paved the way for Constable to be elected with the title of an Associate the same year. To create canvases of this magnitude, Constable first made sketches of the scene from life, unusually he then crafted these into a full-size oil sketch before creating the final painting.

In the image Constable depicts a normal scene of rural life, neither pitying or celebrating the working lives of those he painted, merely presenting them as he saw them. There is an underlying tenacity to the image, both in the figures of the bargemen straining against their poles but also in that Constable shows the men continuing a centuries old way of life despite the increasing threat of industrialization. The determination of the workers is reflected in the image of the tree to the right of centre clinging precariously but successfully to the waterlogged bank.

In the image, as with much of Constable's work, the vegetation is presented in scientific detail with each species clearly identifiable from its differing shape, color, and area of growth. Constable used a huge palette of different greens in his works and this delineation of species is particularly prominent in this painting giving the image a verdancy which reflects the season and time of day.

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Content compiled and written by Zaid S. Sethi

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kate Stephenson

"John Constable Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Zaid S. Sethi
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kate Stephenson
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First published on 07 Mar 2012. Updated and modified regularly
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