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John Constable (1776-1837)
( Originally Published 1955 )
British painter and one of the foremost landscapist in history. Constable represents a full step forward in the modern development of landscape art. He was a product of eastern England with its luxuriant meadows, distant horizons, picturesque villages, and above all its everchanging sky with constantly moving cloud formations. The latter were for him "the key note, the standard of scale, and the chief organ of sentiment." Although Constable's outlook on nature was primarily naturalistic, his individuality of style and interest in "sentiment" made him part of the Romantic period in which he lived. His naturalism appears in the projection of landscapes whose elements are in constant movement under natural conditions of light; his more Romantic side emerges through the expression of nature's power and his own exultation therein. Yet his approach was not nearly so Romantic as that of Turner. Constable enjoyed clouds, sunshine, trees and fields for their own sakes, in addition to viewing them as potential vehicles for human emotions.
The son of a prosperous mill owner, Constable showed a taste for sketching at an early age, but did not become a serious art student until 1799; he entered the Royal Academy School in 1800, When he first exhibited there two years later, he wrote to a friend that there was nothing in the exhibition worth looking up to and that there was "room enough for a natural painter." From this point onward, Constable developed his own style of painting, but fame was slow to arrive. In 1824, when he was fifty, in company with some of his countrymen he showed a number of landscapes at the Paris Salon. Among these was the since famous Hay Wain, for which the painter was awarded a gold medal. In his own land, however, there were few people who appreciated what he had to offer and very little market for landscapes. In his early days he had to supplement a meager income by doing portraits, while spending as much time as possible painting landscapes. He was made an associate of the Royal Academy in 1819 and elected to full membership in 1829, but he felt that this honor had come too late in life to have much meaning.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Constable's technique was the fact that he made quick sketches setting down his first spontaneous and emotional reactions to natural beauties; these visual impressions, even more than his finished works. are regarded as his real contribution. To accomplish his aim of rendering the living, moving quality of nature, he used broken touches of color. On a foundation of warm reddish monochrome he would build up the fresh blues and greens of nature, the individual spots of paint often laid on with a palette knife in the modern manner. The sparkles of light and color and the deliberate roughness of textures broke with the tradition of smooth painting. Besides the intrinsic merit of Constable's work, it is also historically important for the effect it had on both the Romantic and Impressionist groups. The spontaneity of such painters as Delacroix may be traced in part to Constable; and the Impressionist search for momentary effects through broken colors, complementary color relationships, and white highlights owes as much to this British painter.