British painter John Constable is considered one of Europe’s greatest landscape painters. Unfortunately, his vision was not fully appreciated or recognized until years after his death. His art greatly influenced French artists of the Barbizon School, as well as the romantics and impressionists of his time.
John Constable was born June 11, 1776, in East Bergholt, Suffolk. His father was a wealthy corn merchant who expected his sons to take over the business in his stead. Having a mentally handicapped older brother added pressure on John to meet his father’s expectations. Although he wanted to please him, he knew he was born to paint. After much convincing, his father agreed to enroll him at the Royal Academy in London to study art full time in 1799.
John’s passion to paint the open countryside and its various moods of light became the inspiration for many paintings including ‘The Lock’ and ‘The Leaping Horse’. He was creating a style of his own by capturing the effects of atmosphere and the movement of clouds that later became his trademark and changed the way landscapes were portrayed from then on.
By 1803, John was exhibiting paintings at the Royal Academy. However, his scenes of ordinary life were not popular amongst the English, and he eventually took commissions of portraiture to make ends meet. During this time, John fell hopelessly in love with Maria Bicknell, his childhood friend. While the two were eager to marry, the idea was frowned upon by Maria’s family for status reasons. John was not considered to be in the family’s league. In 1816, the couple finally received approval to marry when John inherited one fifth of the family business after his father’s death.
It was not until 1819 that John sold his first important canvas, ‘The White Horse’. He was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy that year by a slim majority, and in 1821, he showed ‘The Hay Wain’ at the Academy's exhibition. Discouraged by a less than successful exhibition, the young artist decided to take his work to Paris.
The French were enthused by John Constable’s art, and an exibition at the Paris Salon in 1824 resulted in a gold medal and the sale of four paintings to Paris dealer, John Arrowsmith. His popularity abroad rejuvenated his hope that he could eventually achieve the same success at home. John returned to England and worked harder to promote his art. Sadly, during his lifetime John Constable sold as little as 20 paintings in England, and never achieved the success he desired. However, his influence in France became an inspiration to impressionist and romantic artists of that time.
In the latter part of 1828, Maria died of tuberculosis and left him to raise their seven children. John plunged into a deep depression that overwhelmed him. His election to the Royal Academy in the following February did not phase him as his success was overshadowed with grief. John Constable died on March 31, 1837, working on his last painting ‘Arundel Mill and Castle’, and was buried in St. John's church in London. Artists are inspired by what he had to say about art: “I never saw an ugly thing in my life: for let the form of an object be what it may, - light, shade, and perspective will always make it beautiful.”