His range may have been a narrow one, but within its limits he was one of the most sincere painters this country has seen. He was the first who attempted with success to place nature upon canvas with pigments that faithfully matched her true, rich, and fresh colours. Her almost unceasing movement he rendered with a master-hand, so that his pictures are full of life, and one can almost hear the rush of the wind through the tree tops, or the lashing of the rain upon the leaves. He felt the majesty of the tempest and the thunder-cloud, and the beauty of the rainbow which signals the storm’s departure. “Sunshine and Shower” would serve admirably for the title of many of his works; for these were the effects he painted most constantly, and with the greatest truth and power.

While his contemporaries wooed the English public with facile pictures of spectacular battles and sentimental moments, John Constable (1776-1837 ) irritated them by drawing his inspiration not from history or literature but from nature itself, and by simply painting what he saw: clouds, canals, ponds, and heaths. His intention, which did not lack ego or hubris, was to paint in “God Almighty’s style”. Although he suffered from allegations of wanton obscurity and dimness, he achieved, in his manner, the theoretical impossibility of producing paintings in which superficially “nothing happens” , yet somehow the viewer remains glued to the canvas.

"The composition originated in a minute drawing Constable made on a visit to Hadleigh in 1814, but was not developed until around the time of his wife's death in 1828. As an image of loneliness and decay, the subject suited his desolate state of mind. The paint is savagely worked across the canvas, contributing to the picture's highly expressive mood." Hadleigh Castle.

As a miller’s son, John Constable was proud of having a miller’s weather eye, but it was not until the publication in 1820 of a book entitled “The Climate of London” that Constable, and indeed, all the writers and painters of the Romantic movement; discovered what might be called the meterological facts of life. Luke Howard, the author and the first modern weatherman, classified clouds into categories-cirrus, cumulus, and so forth- and gave a scientific basis to the atmospheric changes that painters had used for mood or simply as decoration.

While Shelly was writing “The Cloud” and Goethe was writing to Luke Howard himself, praising him for discovering in meterology “a symbol of the universal law,” Constable was out “skying,” recording the sky in all its moods. He worked fast, sketching on sheets of oiled paper in the lid of his paintbox, and in 1822 alone he executed more than fifty brilliant little pictures. “It will be difficult,” he said, ” to name a class of landscape in which the sky is not the keynote, the standard of scale, and the chief organ of sentiment…The sky is the source of light in nature, and governs everything.”

Constable. The Cenotaph

Having freed himself of the literary feelings that surrounded conventtional landscape painting, Constable now realized that an artist did not constantly need to seek fresh scenes: the mood, form, and tones of a single landscape were in a state of everlasting change and permutation because of the effect of light. Howard,s book helped him to explain things for which there had previously been no correct language, and now he was able to say in one of his lectures that landscape painting “is scientific as well as poetic;… imagination alone never did, and never can, produce works that are to stand by a comparison with realities”.

Constable’s sky sketches were made in Hampstead. In 1820, when he first went to live there, it was a large comfortable village, only a shilling coachride from London. “The Heath” , with its ponds and gravel works, was still very wild. His favorite sketching and painting spot was near Branch Hill pond. Foggy, noisy London lay below. It was while watching the effect of the clouds from these heights that Constable formed the corollary to his ideas about light: “I live by shadows,” he said. ” To me shadows are realities.” Hampstead Heath was to become an important personal landscape for Constable; but when his beloved wife Maria died in 1828, he chose none of these for his astonishing memorial to her.

Waterloo bridge from Whitehall Stairs. "In this, the final version of the subject, the Lord Mayor's barge is now included on the right. The 'shot tower' is of course an anachronism for an event which occurred nine years before its construction. A parapet surmounted by urns appears in the foreground, acting as a repoussoir, or device for projecting the eye deep into the composition. Above the bridge Constable portrays a rare atmospheric condition which he described thus: 'when the spectator stands with his back to the sun, the rays may be seen converging…towards…the horizon'."

Many years earlier, during his frustrating courtship, Constable had discovered an ancient tower overlooking the Thames estuary at Hadleigh. He had never revisited the spot but now, his wife dead, he remembered it and how it had seemed to represent the futility of human endeavor. The majestic sketch he made for the picture of this castle, which he entitled “The Nore” , is overwhelming in its grief. One critic has said that nothing equals its sense of desolation except van Gogh’s last painting of empty fields. Although more than a century was to pass before the importance of the finished work was understood, the luminous “Hadleigh Castle” of 1829 marks one of those great and rare advances in the history of painting.

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In paintings for exhibit, it is true, Constable made have made concessions to popular taste; adding a hint of narrative, a touch of finish, or a nod to history. But in his oil sketches he was a daring experimenter. Seascape Study with Rain Clouds. 1824-25

Constable was elected a member of the Royal Academy a few months after his wife’s death. it was his fourth attempt to join the Academy, and he squeaked by a margin of a single vote. His great contemporary J.M.W. Turner came around to tell him the good news and was full of congratulations. Sir Thomas Lawrence, president of the Academy, was, however, genuinely surprised. Constable, he commented, “ought to think himself lucky”.

Although Constable had once remarked that “the Royal Academicians know as much about landscape as they do about the Kingdom of Heaven,” the election meant a great deal to him. A man who honored institutions, he believed his acceptance by the highest art institute in the land meant people would look at his pictures with new respect. He felt vindicated at last.

The Harvest Field. "This impressive painting is beautifully painted with jewel-like precision and shows Constable's ability to capture the immediate sensations of light and atmosphere; it is one of Constable's most natural depictions of the landscape around his home, reflecting his interest in portraying rural harmony. It is notable in the way the figures are more conspicuous and more particularized than in his other early landscapes. Although based on a number of sketchbook drawings, the work was probably painted in large part in front of the motif. The field depicted here is the same one seen in the right foreground of The Stour Valley and Dedham Village 5 September 1814."

Gradually the depression following his wife’s death lifted. He traveled to the English places where he felt himself a “welcome guest” during these last years. At Coleorton he stayed with his old friend Sir George Beaumont. The Romantic movement was now nearing its end, and Sir George, in a truly romantic gesture, had erected in his garden an ornamental cenotaph to Sir Joshua Reynolds. Constable painted this elaborate garden scene, introducing a stag that seems to link the eighteenth century with the Victorian age, now so near. It is a strange picture, almost academic in its artificial sadness and unusually finished brushwork, as if Constable were making an effort to please a sentimental public.

Coast Scene. 1828.Seated before his subject, his paintbox on his knees, Constable began in about 1816 to dash off rough impressions of the scenes he knew so well.

In 1832 he exhibited his most ambitious attempt at history painting. He had worked on “Waterloo Bridge from Whitehall Stairs” for thirteen years, and the subject- the new bridge over the Thames being opened  by the prince regent to celebrate the defeat of  Napoleon- was a popular one. But the picture was not popular. Constable’s wonderful description of light playing on the water and on the crowded banks was, as usual, dismissed as “spotty” .

In 1835 he sold the last of his great Stour scenes, “The Valley Farm” , for three hundred pounds. He spent most of the money fitting out his son Charles for the sea. In February, 1837, he gave his last lecture at the Royal Academy school at Somerset House, and was cheered by the students. He died suddenly, on march 31, 1837, after a long day working on a picure called “Arundel Mill”. There was a Rubens print near his feet and Cowper’s “Letters”, his favorite bedside book, near his hand. He was sixty-one years old. He was buried near the wall in Hampstead churchyard, beneath the clear skies from which he had learned the profound truths that fill his landscapes.

Constable. Branch Hill Pond: Evening. 1821-22. In these studies, made largely for his own instruction and pleasure, Constable realized his chief ambition:" to give one brief moment caught from fleeting time a lasting and sober existence."

Nearly all his work remained in storage until 1888, when his daughter bequeathed it to the nation. Thereafter, most Englishmen would see John Constable as the perfect interpreter of their countryside; indeed, “The Hay Wain” became, as one modern critic has said, ” part of the landscape of every English mind.”

It is ironic that as total acceptance of Constable’s vision of landscape art was beginning, the French impressionists- Cézanne, Monet, Manet- were struggling against the same kind of official hostility that Constable had encountered. But in time, they too would enjoy the public adulation that their English forebear finally earned.

“After his fiftieth year Constable became a devotee of light and air. He found, as the moderns have found, that this devotion was incompatible with the traditional handling of oil-paint—with smooth shapely brush work passing by adroit transitions into a harmonious foundation of broken grey or brown, and afterwards mellowed by a warm glaze. To suggest the shimmer of wet grass and leaves in sunlight, or the intense brightness of the summer sky, he had to use paint fresh from the tube, loading parts of his canvas with spots and masses of pure pigment, so that no single atom of illumination might be lost. His method, in fact, was almost identical with that of our modern scientific painters except in one import-ant respect.

Constable. The Valley Farm. 1835."This work shows a view of Willy Lott's House at Flatford from the River Stour. The farmer lived continuously in the same house for over eighty years and for Constable it came to represent an important part of the Suffolk landscape, a nostalgic symbol of the 'natural' way of life. In this painting Constable has made the house look grander by adding half-timbering on one side and some extra windows. The trees on the right of the picture are also larger, more expressive and more contorted than in earlier versions and there is a development towards looser and more expressive handling of paint."

“The essential difference is that Constable retained to the last his sound foundation in monochrome. Paintings like The leaping Horse, The Valley Farm and The Cenotaph, with all their splashing and spotting and scraping and loading have thus a certain unity and dignity, which enables them to hang by the side of the paintings of the old masters, without looking garish or undecided. . . . It is only necessary to compare his work with that of his predecessors or contemporaries, to realize how vast was the revolution that he initiated, more especially in the matter of colour, which he treated with a combination of frankness and temperance as yet unsurpassed. No man has hitherto combined so much of that beauty of aspect which we all admire in the Art of the past, with so large a measure of the wind and sunshine which have become the conditions of the painting of our own day. Had Constable carried realism further, it might have been difficult to claim so much for him.” ( C.J. Holmes )

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