"But You know Landscape is my mistress" - On John Constable's 240th Birthday

11 June 1776, the English Romantic painter John Constable was born in East Bergholt, in the Stour Valley of Suffolk.
“But You know Landscape is my mistress — 'tis to her that I look for fame — and all that the warmth of the imagination renders dear to Man.“ (John Constable)

John Constable: "Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Garden" (1826)

April 1336, Petrarch climbed the Provençal Mont Ventoux, looked down from the summit and was overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape spreading out below. The letter to his former confessor describing the poet’s night on the “Bald Mountain”, so to speak, is often enough quoted as the starting shot of a paradigm change in the artistic perception of nature itself. Admittedly, minnesingers and troubadours did take notice at least of nature’s sublime beauty about a hundred years before already, but the fine arts used a landscape as stylised background at best since antiquity. Until Petrarch climbed form his mountain. About the same time, painters of the nascent Renaissance began to recognise the intrinsic artistic value of a landscape and depicted it. Maybe with a whiff of euphemism and apotropaic magic, since Mother Nature still was seen of having a somewhat cruel streak and maybe it was scientific interest to get a grip at and behind the appearance of things, but landscapes were there to stay as part of the Western canon of figurative painting. The Dutch masters of the 17th century excelled in it and even bequeathed the term upon the English language, landschap, Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain took it from there and finally established the groundwork of landscape painting. Regardless, landscapes still ranked quite low in the hierarchy of paintings while historical, biblical and other mythological scenes and portraits were on top and the latter gaining mythological qualities with the Grand Manner of English 18th century artists like Reynolds and Gainsborough. And while Gainsborough actually loved to paint landscapes, he was forced to use them as allegorical backgrounds for his famous portraits since they sold better. One of Gainsborough’s admirers though took heart and decided to become a landscape artist and developed the genre to iconic quality, a Suffolk lad from the Stour valley named John Constable.

John Constable: "The Hay Wain" (1821)

Gracing cookie boxes these days with the picturesque tranquillity and the assumed essential Englishness of the Suffolk countryside, Constable’s works were revolutionary once upon a time. Even though Constable today is one of the best known English painters, he struggled most of his life for his breakthrough as an acknowledged artist who can live by his art and feed his family of seven. Not that he had to, since he came from a solid middle class background and his wife brought money into the family, but nevertheless, it’s always nice to make a living from doing what one loves. Constable tried portrait painting and hated it, attempted religious pictures and failed abysmally, gave drawing lessons and somehow managed, to visit Suffolk’s green and pleasant lands and capture a fleeting moment of the seemingly ordinary places of his youth and created something eternal. In the almost 40 years of his active period, John Constable later found his inspiration in monuments like Stonehenge, Old Sarum and Salisbury Cathedral but mostly under “every hedge, and in every lane, and therefore nobody thinks it worth picking up“ and painted it in broad, revolutionary strokes, the turmoil his perception created well hidden under a seemingly plain exterior. For most of his active period, it was his native Stour valley and the good folks populating it that provided Constable with inspiration. To get at least some visibility at the annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy where the works of non-members like him usually hung in corners or under the roof far above eye level, he expanded his canvasses to at least 6’ and these six-footers allowed him to render the scenes he sketched during the summers spent in Suffolk with lots of endearing details arranged into a harmonious big picture. The plan took off, Constable was recognised and the six-footers even began to sell for decent amounts. But since the prophet has hardly any honour in his own country, it was the French Romantics who really fell over themselves in admiring his paintings with essentially English subjects like the weather and the clouds that made the “Wild Swiss” Henry Fuseli exclaim “I like de landscapes of Constable; he is always picturesque, of a fine colour, and de lights always in de right places; but he makes me call for my great coat and umbrella.”

John Constable "Stonehenge" (1835)

The death of his beloved wife and mother of his seven children of tuberculosis at the age of 41 in 1828 dealt him a heavy blow. Constable, in his early 50s by then, only wore black afterwards and the weather in his paintings grew considerably worse. He always felt that there was empathy between nature and her spectator and few managed to convey these affectivities on the canvas like he did. His contemporary and a bit of a rival Turner could, of course, admittedly in a somewhat more churning manner and it might be a case of keeping up with the Joneses, but towards the last phase of Constable’s creative period, one is inclined to reach for a sou’wester instead of an umbrella. The magic of his paintings was still fed by the tension of exact observation and subsequent neglect of the line in favour of colours and the colour effect. Like that a good Romantic painter should. But his sujets grew more sombre and the neglect of lines sometimes assumed an almost expressionist quality. Like Turner, Constable had no real successor to his monolithic body of works, both artists stood out as insular singularities on a magnificent scale, far ahead of or rather beside their times. Constable did influence the painters on the continent and especially in France and while Géricault and Delacroix reduced his dramatic landscapes to backgrounds again for topics they had in focus, the English landscape artist already had become one of the primal fathers of the School of Barbizon, late 19th century art, especially Impressionism and consequently modern art – and stands out in landscape painting by creating supratemporal things of beauty that convey the feeling of a place more than most descriptions could. Even on a cookie box.

Small monographic shows of Constable's works can be found here: