John Constable (1776 - 1837)
'Nature is the source of all originality in art'
John Constable was born in East Bergholt, Suffolk 11 June 1776. As a child he showed a great interest in art. After completing a year as an apprentice miller in his father's flour mill, he went to London in 1799 to study painting at the Royal Academy schools.
At the Royal Academy, although dreadfully homesick for Suffolk, Constable was a model student spending all his spare moments drawing and reading.
He exhibited his first landscape paintings in 1802 and thereafter studied painting and English rural life on his own, developing a distinctly individual style.
Constable spent some time travelling the English countryside making sketches, with a lot of his work focussed on the Stour Valley, where he grew up.
Although he had mastered his craft by the age of 33, Constable had received little income in his so far quite unsuccessful career.
He was unable to earn a living from the few commissions he gained.
When he met and fell in love with Maria Bicknell, his lack of income was cited by Maria's family and she was threatened with disinheritance if she consented to his marriage proposal.
Constable courted Maria for the next seven years.
The couple were loyal to each other through long periods of separation, as Constable spent six months of the year in London painting from his numerous sketches, preparing for the exhibition held by the Royal Academy each May.
In the 1815 exhibition he showed eight pictures including 'Boatbuilding'.
The death of his father in May of 1816 was a turning point in Constable's life. He received an annual income from the his father's mill, which was now managed by his brother, and when this was added to his allowance and the earnings for his paintings his marriage to Maria was now possible.
In October of that same year they were married in Suffolk, although none of her family attended the wedding.
After the birth of their first child, Constable gained a new creative energy and began work on his 'six-footers', the large scenes of the River Stour. These large paintings were exhibited each spring and his reputation grew.
The oil sketch for 'The Hay Wain' was begun in 1820 and it was finished the following year. On its first exhibition it made little impact in England. This, Constable's most famous painting, later left England in the hands of a French art dealer.
In 1821 Constable moved his family to Hampstead in hoping the cleaner air would help Maria's delicate health. Later, in 1823, he exhibited 'Salisbury Cathedral' at the Royal academy.
Constable chose Hampstead as the main focus of his later work.
He first bought a house there in 1819 but didn’t move in permanently until 1827.In his painting, Constable familiarised himself with Hampstead Heath by making innumerable studies of the same scenes under different conditions.
The views westward from the heath, looking towards Harrow, for example, were tried again and again.At Hampstead, Constable became more acutely conscious of weather as a continuous phenomenon, forever altering the appearance of the landscape; he became, indeed, more aware of the changefulness of nature as a whole.
Recognition for his talent came in 1824 when the king of France awarded him a gold medal for 'The Hay Wain'. In the same year another 'six-footer', 'The Lock', was bought while on exhibition at the Royal Academy, for the asking price.
There was little gloss in Constable's eventual success.
Maria's health deteriorated in 1828 after the birth of their seventh child. Her father's death in March brought an inheritance which ended any financial worries the Constables may have had.
Yet Maria's health worsened and in November of that year she died from pulmonary tuberculosis.
Constable was heart broken. The marriage which had been so long in coming had only lasted for 12 years. He remarked to Golding, his brother , 'I shall never feel again as I have felt, the face of the world is totally changed for me'.
Although he never fully recovered from this immeasurable loss, Constable resumed his career, finally being elected a full Academician by one vote in 1829.
His last major picture of Suffolk was completed in 1835.
"The Valley Farm" shows another view of Willie Lott's cottage in Flatford, which is also seen in the "Hay Wain".
Constable said this picture was 'painted for a very particular person - the person for whom I have all my life painted'.
John Constable died in 1837 and is buried in Hampstead alongside his beloved Maria.
During his lifetime he gained little acclaim in his home country for painting unfashionable landscapes. Yet he is now considered one of the most unique and perhaps the greatest of all British landscape artists.