John Constable was the first English painter to paint directly from nature in the open air, and the first to paint foliage really green. He was a painter whose brush seems to have responded with a perception of its own in accord with the artist’s mood. There is an evident difference between the early years of search and fulfillment, when he painted in a happy mood, and the later years of his life when the same motifs were reinterpreted in slashing brushwork in his years of despondency following the death of his wife, Maria. He suffered from much insecurity during the years of struggle for recognition. He became both rich and famous, without serious money problems, but he became more withdrawn, pessimistic and racked with doubts as to his achievements, while producing some of his finest work.
Constable was born in 1776 in the Suffolk village of East Bergholt, where his father owned water mills on the River Stour. He lived a life of blameless bourgeois obscurity, alternating between London and the Suffolk countryside. He spent years of inconclusive study at the Royal Academy. At thirty-three, Constable fell in love with Maria Bicknell who was twenty-one. Her grandfather so strongly objected to her marrying an artist with no promising future that they were forced to postpone the wedding for six years. Maria died at forty of pulmonary tuberculosis, having borne seven children after difficult pregnancies during a period of ten years of increasing invalidism.
Constable was a doting father, frequently taking the children on vacations. The seven children remain rather vague figures except for the eldest, John, a moody youth who shared his father’s love of nature and was so distressed by his father’s death, when young John was twenty, that he could not attend the funeral. John then entered Cambridge to read theology, but died of scarlet fever in 1841, a disease that had already claimed Constable’s daughter Emily in 1839 at the age of fourteen. In 1853, another son, Alfred, drowned in the Thames. Another son, Charles, became a sailor in his early teens, traveling to India and China. The eldest daughter, named for Maria, but called Minna, did her best as head of the small orphanage that her father left behind.
Constable failed to gain full recognition in the Royal Academy, in spite of his efforts to play the necessary political games. His frustration turned to resentment and criticism when a few weeks after Maria’s death he was elected Royal Academician. Her death completely shattered him and he wore mourning for the nine remaining years of his life. But the paintings he produced at that period were among his best. The 18th century was an age of romanticism, which the English found in landscape and seascape that were more personalized than any of their time. Constable felt no need to travel; there was in the area around him enough drama to last forever. Mood and climate were one with him.
Constable was of course only incidentally a water colorist, and the majority of his works in this medium are notes, brilliant in execution but intended only for future reference in the composition of oil paintings. It is incomprehensible that his genius can have been so neglected in his own time. Had he not had independent means, it would have been impossible for him to devote his energies to the landscape painting which revolutionized the visual habits of Europe.
Constable always lived under the artistic shadow of J.M.W. Turner, who was almost his own age, but far more successful in contemporary eyes.
Written and submitted by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher from Laguna Woods, California.
John Canaday in Architectural Digest
Time Magazine, May 9, 1969
Robert Hughes in Time Magazine, March 1, 1976
John Ashbery in Newsweek, April 25, 1983
Metropolitan Museum of Art Miniatures, English Water Colors
Time Magazine, July 5, 1963.
Glorious Days in the Country by William Feaver in ARTnews, October, 1991