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.


Dedham Vale and The Vale of Dedham by John Constable

My Daily Art Display today features two paintings by the same artist, with almost the same titles, but completed twenty six years apart.  The artist is one of the greatest landscape painters of England.  His name is John Constable.  Before we look at the two works of art let me give you a potted history of his life.

John Constable was born in East Bergholt, a small village on the River Stour in Suffolk in 1776, the fourth of six children.  His descendents were farmers and his father Golding Constable was an affluent corn merchant who owned considerable amounts of property in the area.  He owned water mills at Flatford and Dedham, two windmills in East Bergholt and even a small ship The Telegraph, which was moored at Mistley, North Essex, and which he used to transport his grain to London.  It was in East Bergholt that two years before John Constable was born his father built himself a large house and lived there with his wife Ann Constable (née Watts), whom he married in 1748.  The couple had six children, three sons, Golding, John and Abram and three daughters, Ann, Martha and Mary.

John Constable was fortunate with his upbringing, being afforded all the advantages of a wealthy family.  His education consisted of a short spell at a boarding school in Lavenham, which proved far too strict, then followed a period at the local day school in Dedham.  John had always enjoyed sketching and this love of this was helped by the local plumber, John Dunthorne, who would take the young boy out on sketching trips around the nearby area. 

As is the case in many life stories of artists, this desire of his son to become an artist did not go down well with his father who believed artists rarely made much money and instead had wanted John to study for a career in the church.  However this, because of his grades, proved to be a forlorn hope.  After that his father decided that John should come into his corn merchant business.  Although John was the second son, his elder brother Golding was mentally handicapped and could not take an active part in the family business and so John was the obvious choice as the future successor.  John did go into the family business but lasted just a year, at which time his younger brother, Abram, was of the age and had the will to become an active member of his father’s business.

The real turning point for John as far as art was concerned came when he was nineteen years old and he and his mother went to visit neighbours.   At this get-together John was introduced to Sir George Beaumont, an amateur artist and wealthy art collector.  Beaumont used to carry around with him, in a specially made wooden box, the latest paintings he had acquired and the day Constable met him he had with him his newly acquired Claude Lorrain painting Hagar and the Angel.  John Constable could not get over its beauty and was totally in awe of the way Claude had depicted the landscape.  The two art lovers spent much time that day discussing art and the works of Claude and the likes of the English landscape artists, John Cozens, and Thomas Girtin.  Sir George Beaumont was very impressed by young Constable’s enthusiasm and knowledge of art.  Constable knew then that he wanted to be a full time artist.  During a visit to Middlesex he met John Thomas Smith, the painter and engraver, later known as Antiquity Smith, because of the book he wrote, Antiquities of London and its Environs.   It was Smith who taught Constable the basic techniques of painting but warned him of the financial drawbacks of becoming a full-time artist.  In 1798 Constable met Joseph Farrington, who had once been a pupil of Richard Wilson.  Farrington goes on to teach Constable the techniques of this great Welsh landscape painter.

Fortunately in 1799, his father relented on his stance about his son studying art and as he now had his other son, Abram, to assist him,  he gave John some money and arranged for him to go London where he enrolled as a probationer at the Royal Academy School.  John was very homesick missing the beautiful countryside of his home and was disillusioned with the continuous copying of the old Masters.  To make things worse he realised that landscape art, which was what he loved, was not held in high regard by the Academy, who only held in high esteem history painting and portraiture.

I am going to conclude the story of Constable’s life at this juncture in his life, aged twenty-three still hell-bent to become an artist but unhappy with his start at the Royal Academy schools.  My next blog will conclude his life story, the tale of his love for a woman and the problems he had with her family but now I want to look at today’s two featured landscape paintings.

In 1802, at the age of twenty-six John Constable completed his first major work entitled Dedham Vale which is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  This, like most of Constable’s paintings, was a scene from the area around the Stour Valley.  I started off this blog by saying that Constable was one of the greatest landscape painters of England but maybe his accolade should be that he was the greatest landscape painter of the Stour Valley and Suffolk as he rarely travelled to other parts of Britain, let alone Europe,  unlike other landscape artists, who would travel extensively painting the beauty of the likes of the Lake District or Wales or the Roman Campagna. 

Dedham Vale by John Constable (1802)

Dedham Vale was painted by Constable in 1802 and now hangs in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  The scene we see before our eyes is one of complete tranquility.  Sadly for many, including Constable, it was also the start of a period of change in Britain and even in that area with the onset of  creeping industrialization,  such peace and serenity would soon be a thing of the past.  Even Constable’s beloved Stour valley would be home to the hubbub of a textile manufacturing area. 

We see before us, looking down from Gun Hill in the east, a flattish landscape of Dedham Vale pierced with a number of small waterways, some of which are natural, others man-made.  The lower reaches of the River Stour is in the middle ground of the painting and it can be seen wending its way eastwards towards the sea.   In the central background we see the gothic tower of Dedham Church and the village of Dedham and further back in the hazy distance we can just make out the town of Harwich.

The Vale of Dedham by John Constable (1828)

Twenty six years later in 1828 he returned to this scene for his last major painting of the Stour Valley entitled The Vale of Dedham, which is now housed in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh.  Maybe the fact that he returned to this scene so many years later is testament to his love for the area.  This later painting of the same view has some subtle differences.  The meandering river heading towards Dedham has got wider and now has a bridge across it.  In the foreground the old stump of the tree is sprouting some new saplings and by drawing our eye to it our attention focuses on the distant landscape.  However what was a more contentious addition to the scene was Constable’s inclusion of a gypsy mother nursing her child besides a fire.  Critics said that the addition did not add to the landscape and the inclusion was just the artist’s way of making the scene more picturesque.  However Charles Rhyne, Professor Emeritus, Art History at Reed College, Oregon,  wrote in his book Studies in the History of Art,  when discussing Constable’s landscapes, that according to an ordnance survey map,  a well was located in this area, and that this would have made it a natural camping site for gypsies.

Graham Reynolds, the art historian and author, also talked about the controversial inclusion of the gypsy in the painting.  In his book about Constable, he pointed out that gypsies were frequently to be seen in East Anglia and that the inclusion of this detail did not infringe Constable’s rule that only actual or probable figures should appear in his landscape paintings. By including the gypsy mother and child in this painting, he said that Constable enlivened the image, with the gypsy’s red cloak providing a contrast to the green of the vegetation.  It should be remembered that Suffolk had been affected by the agricultural depression and social unrest during the 1820s, and the inclusion of the gypsy in the painting may reflect the instability of rural life at this time and Constable’s sympathy with the cause of ordinary people.   Note how the gypsy is wearing a bright red shawl or coat.  Constable always believed that even the smallest touch of bright red in a painting highlighted and animated the green of the surroundings and he often used this technique in his other paintings.  Maybe that is another reason for the inclusion of the gypsy.

This second painting of Dedham Vale was well received by the Royal Academy when Constable exhibited it in 1828 under the title of Landscape.  Six years later he exhibited it again, this time at the British Institution under a different title.  This time he called it The Stour Valley.  People loved it and art critic of the The Morning Post (March 10th 1834) wrote:

“…..We must consider this picture as one of the best which we remember to have seen from Mr. Constable’s pencil. It is a work of great power both of colour and light and shade, and is executed with considerable freedom and dexterity of execution…” 

Which version did you prefer?