Maria Bicknell, Mrs John Constable by John Constable

Maria Bicknall by John Constable (1816)

In My Daily Art Display blog yesterday I looked at the early life of John Constable,  up to the point in his life when at twenty-three years of age he was still hell-bent to become an artist.     Today I am going to conclude the story of his life and look at another of his paintings.  

In 1799,  Constable had finally convinced his father to let him pursue art and he enrols in the Royal Academy School as a probationer.  Although he finds inspiration in paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, Thomas Gainsborough, Claude Lorrain and Annibale Carracci, he becomes very homesick and yearns for the beautiful countryside of his Sussex home.  He is also becoming very disheartened with the way the Royal Academy, at that time, disdainfully viewed landscape art.  Landscape art was his passion but unfortunately for him, it was not held in high regard by the Academy, who only valued history painting and portraiture.  Whilst he attended the Academy he met Turner but the two never forged a friendship.

In 1802 Constable exhibited his first painting at the Royal Academy.  His landscape works were unfortunately not the traditional heavenly landscapes which depicted biblical or mythological stories, which were in vogue at the time, and so were not popular with the buying public.  His depictions of the countryside were far more realistic than those of the very popular Gainsborough and Claude.  If anything, his style was more akin to that of the Dutch landscape painters, such as Jacob van Ruysdael.   Constable fervently believed that landscape art was to be a true study and reflection of nature and that idealized landscapes, which had been painted from the artist’s own imagination were, in some ways, dishonest.  He left the Royal Academy in 1802 and was offered the position of drawing master at Great Marlow Military College, but he turned down the offer, which horrified the then master of the Royal Academy, Benjamin West, who told Constable in no uncertain terms that his refusal would probably mean the end of his artistic career.  However Constable was not deterred and chose to stay on his chosen course – that of a landscape artist.  Constable returned to East Bergholt.

In 1800, when he was aged twenty-four and whilst he was at home in East Bergholt, he had become friendly with a young girl who was some twelve years younger than him.  Her name was Maria Bicknell.  Now almost ten years later in 1809, John is aged thirty-three and Maria is twenty-one years of age and their relationship changed.  Slowly but surely, this one-time childhood friendship developed into a much more serious relationship and the two fell deeply in love.  Seven years later, in 1816,  the couple decided to get engaged but this was strongly opposed by Maria’s parents and her grandfather, Dr. Rhudde who was the rector of East Bergholt.  Both Maria’s father, Charles Bicknell, who held the prominent position as solicitor to the Admiralty, and her grandfather did not want her to be married to a penniless artist and they also believed that Constable and his family were socially inferior to them and not fit in-laws.  To force home their disquiet about such a proposed liaison they told Maria that she would be disinherited if she married Constable.  Constable’s parents Golding and Ann Constable, while somewhat sympathetic to the desires of their son, could also see no future in the proposed marriage as they would not in the position to financially support the couple and even Maria herself pointed out to Constable that if he was to succeed as an artist he did not want the distraction of a wife and the financial implications of such a match.  For the next seven years the couple were often parted and sometimes forbidden even to write to one another, but throughout their long, frustrating courtship they remained loyal to each other

The situation changed in 1816 when both Golding and Ann Constable died and Constable inherits a fifth of the family business.   Now with some money behind him and the fact that their daughter Maria is twenty-eight years old, her parents reluctantly agree to let her marry Constable.  John and Maria marry in that October at St Martin-in-the Fields, London and the two of them tour the south coast of England on honeymoon. 

Constable struggled to sell his paintings and it was not until 1819 that Constable made his first big sale, which was for his painting entitled The White Horse.  This sale spurred him on and it led to what are known as his “six footers”, a series of six large scale paintings, which included The Hay Wain and Stratford Lock.  The Hay Wain was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1821 and was seen by the great French Romantic artist Théodore Géricault who on his return to Paris spread the word about Constable and his painting.   Three years later, the painting is bought by the art dealer John Arrowsmith and it is exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1824 where it wins a gold medal.

Four years on and it is 1828 and that January Maria gives birth to their seventh child.  Sadly that same year she falls ill and after a prolonged illness dies that November of tuberculosis, at the young age of forty-one.  Constable is devastated by his loss and in a letter to his elder brother Golding he wrote:

“….hourly do I feel the loss of my departed Angel—God only knows how my children will be brought up…the face of the World is totally changed to me…”

In his book, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, Charles Leslie wrote that after the death of his wife, Constable was always dressed in black and was “a prey to melancholy and anxious thoughts”.  Constable had to, from then on, look after his seven children singlehandedly.    

The financial situation of his having to bring up all his children should not have been too burdensome as shortly before her death, Maria’s father had died, leaving her £20,000.  However Constable, instead of safeguarding this new wealth, speculated disastrously with this money.  A large proportion of the money was invested in the engraving of his landscape works which he believed would easily pay for themselves but he was sadly mistaken and the money raised did not cover the expenditure.

At the age of  fifty-two he was elected to the Royal Academy and two years later in 1831 was appointed Visitor at the Royal Academy, a part time teaching post which proved to be very successful and extremely fulfilling.  He regularly lectured on landscape art and once again regaled how works should depict real scenes and not idealized fantasies.  It is interesting to note that although he was not always happy with the art education he received at the Royal Academy thirty years earlier, one of the constant themes of his lectures was the way he praised the establishment calling it the “cradle of British Art” and he stated that no great artist was ever self-taught.

Constable died in 1837 a couple of months short of his sixty-first birthday and was buried besides his beloved Maria in the graveyard of St John-at-Hampstead in London.  Later the couple would be joined in the family tomb by two of their sons, John Charles Constable and Charles Golding Constable

My Daily Art Display featured painting today is not one of his famous “six-footers” but a beautiful painting of his wife which he completed a few months before they married in 1816.  On completing the portrait Constable wrote to his wife:

“…I would not be without your portrait for the world the sight of it soon calms my spirit under all trouble…”

Constable is primarily known for his beautiful landscape paintings but he was also an accomplished portraitist and before us we see his depiction of the woman he deeply loved.  What greater love could an artist bestow on his wife than to paint her portrait?  The marriage only lasted twelve years but one should remember that he had known and loved the young girl for sixteen years before they had been allowed to become man and wife.

The painting hangs at the Tate Britain Gallery in London.