Keeping John Constable's technical proficiency aside, the emotive quality in his work is really beautiful - you look at a Constable painting, and you know that the artist's heart was in it. There is a beautiful tranquility about the landscapes - they convey an idea of gentle times and lovely days, of one those beautiful poetic moments that alight upon you on a peaceful walk, and stay with you in difficult times. An "Everything's Alright with the World" kind of feeling. Constable lived at exactly the same time as Wordsworth, and both of them have a strikingly similar sensibility and love for nature.
John Constable was born in 1776 in East Bergholt, a small village in Suffolk. He was the son of a wealthy mill and land owner, Golding Constable, and his wife Ann. In all, there were six children. Constable had an idyllic childhood, and was eventually expected to take over his father's business.
From quite an early age, he showed a distinct penchant for art, and was always found drawing or sketching. He was encouraged by the local school teacher, the local plumber, and by his indulgent parents. It was nice after all for John to have a hobby, and be so good at it too. What they hadn't bargained for, was his turning the hobby into a career choice. This happened after he met the eccentric Sir George Beaumont, an amateur painter, who owned and lugged around everywhere, a painting by Claude Lorrain called 'Hagar and the Angel'. Constable was so impressed by this painting, he decided that he wanted nothing more but to paint professionally for his entire life.
Golding Constable was aghast by this decision. If not a respectable businessman, he wanted his son to at least become a respectable clergyman. Becoming an artist didn't even figure on the respectable barometer as far as he was concerned. He insisted on his son to join him at work regarding the family water and windmills. But he was a fond father too, and wanted his son to be happy. Hence, after a year, he came around, and agreed to allow John to study art in London. His younger brother, Abram, was groomed to take over the family business, and acquitted himself creditably.
Constable, provided with a comfortable allowance by his father, went to London in 1799, and enrolled at the Royal Academy. In this institution, he first met the other great English Painter, Turner, who also was a fellow student at the RA. They had a long rivalry, in which Turner would always remain several steps ahead.
Although Constable did excellently in his art studies, he missed his close knit family, the peaceful home, and the lovely Suffolk countryside. In the big, bustling London city, he felt like a caged bird. Moreover, he also didn't receive much appreciation or encouragement for his penchant for landscape painting. At the time, if you wanted to make a name for yourself as an artist, you painted portraits and historical/mythological adventures. Constable had no interest in making these kinds of pictures. A stubbornly honest streak, combined with a strong self-belief, kept him doing only what he liked, regardless of public acknowledgment. This is one of the hallmarks of genius, but at that time, it kept him from being admitted as a member of the Royal Academy, and kept him financially dependent on his father's allowance.
In 1809, when he was 33, Constable fell in love with 21 year old Maria Bricknell, whom he had known since childhood. It was a classic love story, complete with villains, hurdles, and a tragic end. The villains, who kept the couple from marrying for seven years, were the Bricknell Family, with Maria's rich and haughty grandfather at the helm. Maria was a heiress, and Constable a penniless artist, who was showing no prospects of even making a penny; of course, it was an unthinkable match.
Finally, after much drama, the couple got married on October 2, 1816. It was a happy union, and they had seven children. Unfortunately, Maria, who always was frail, had contracted tuberculosis, a fatal disease in those times, and after only 12 years of marriage, she died on November 23, 1828.
After his wife's death, Constable had just began to taste success with his spectacular, large-sized canvases. The idea behind creating such huge works was to make them prominently stand-out amongst the many, which were exhibited at the annual Royal Academy Exhibition. These landscapes of the Suffolk countryside were painted in his studio, and his numerous sketches and drawings were used as references. His rapidly executed color sketches, have a distinctly impressionistic quality, and today, seem more alive and interesting than the finished works.
At that time, the finished works caused a stir. Constable was the first painter to use the classical browns, and paint in an entirely realistic manner. His fresh, atmospheric paintings with their magnificent skies, really impressed all viewers. In France especially, where 'The Hay Wain' was included in a 1824 exhibition of English Paintings, and was given the gold medal by the French King, the French artists were so overcome with admiration for his bright colors, that one of them, a fellow called Delacroix, took down his own painting 'Massacre at Chios', went home, and retouched it completely.
The English were comparatively slow to admire the genius in their midst. It wasn't until February 1829, that Constable finally received membership of the Royal Academy.
Constable died on March 31, 1837, leaving behind a wonderful body of work, and a reputation that would only grow with passing years.
'The Hay Wain', 1821, National Gallery
'Salisbury Cathedral', 1823, Victoria and Albert Museum
'Chain Pier, Brighton', 1827, Tate Gallery