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Constable
Constable
John Constable, 1776-1837
Artist
John Constable was a pre-eminent Romantic landscape painter and draughtsman. His highly original approach to landscape, fuelled by his desire to elevate the genre and shaped by his emotional and economic attachment to that part of East Anglia already known before his death as 'Constable's country', has ensured that his contribution to the development of landscape art in nineteenth-century Britain is rivalled only by that of his contemporary, J. M. W. Turner. Constable reluctantly began training in the family business at the age of sixteen. The knowledge he gained in these years, coupled with what he later characterised as his 'over-weaning affection for these scenes', would subsequently inform the impassioned naturalism of his landscape art even when the scenery depicted was not East Anglian. Constable went to London to study painting in 1799. In February that year he presented himself to Joseph Farington, former pupil of Wilson, Royal Academician and later best known for his diaries, whose friendly intervention facilitated his entry into the London art world. In March he was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools as a probationer and in February 1800 was enrolled as a student in the life academy. Stimulated by parental pressure to achieve some degree of financial independence, Constable found it necessary to resort to portraiture, approaching many of his sitters through family and friends. In 1812 he exhibited A Water-Mill (Private Collection) at the Royal Academy. At least one of his works exhibited in 1815, Boat-Building (Victoria & Albert Museum, London), and perhaps a second, View of Dedham (Boston Museum of Fine Arts), were painted entirely in the open air during his visits to Bergholt the previous years. Success, however, came to him very slowly and it was not until the completion of his great series of 'six-footers' that he was accepted as a Royal Academician in 1829.

During his career Constable sold relatively little of what he produced and like Wilson, he felt that his own value was not recognised by his contemporaries. He had a particular admiration for Wilson, not least because on his arrival in London Farington had lent him versions of P137 The Villa of Maecenas at Tivoli and P138 The West Belvedere at Hadrian's Villa, Tivoli to copy and he had later acquired these (both currently unlocated) from the older artist. He is known to have possessed a copy of Wright 1824.

Writing to Maria Bicknell, his future wife, on 4 May 1814 Constable said of the recently-opened exhibition at the British Institution, which he had yet to see: 'I only hope the labours of those great men Wilson and Gainsborough will open the eyes of the world to appreciate the value of original study, that every honest painter may have his reward.' (R.B. Beckett ed.: John Constable's Correspondence, vol . 2, Ipswich 1964, p. 122).

In a letter of of 9 May 1823 to his friend Archdeacon John Fisher he famously recalled 'I went to the gallery of Sir John Leicester to see the English artists. I recollect nothing so much as a solemn-bright-warm-fresh landscape by Wilson [P98 or P126], which still swims in my brain like a delicious dream. Poor Wilson. Think of his magnificence, think of his fate! But the mind loses its dignity less in adversity than in prosperity. He is now walking arm in arm with Milton -& Linnaeus. He was one of the great appointments to shew to the world the hidden stores and beauties of Nature. One of the great men who shew to the world what exists in nature but which was not known till his time.' (R.B. Beckett ed.: John Constable's Correspondence, vol . 6, Ipswich 1968, p. 117).

In a letter of 27 August 1827 he remarked to Fisher concerning the sale of Lord de Tabley's collection, 'A landscape by Wilson-500£. Query-had he 50-for this truly magnificent and affecting picture? [P98]. But the voice of "Retribution" will at length break forth-and exclaim in the words of Shakespear [sic] "May this expiate"-but Wilson has joined the "noble army of Martyrs"-& who would not so join them-who would not "so equal him in fate could they not equal him in renown"? He was aware of all this himself when he told Farrington [sic] that "the country was not yet prepared for him"-his natural dignity never allowed him to say more. His works were truly original . He showed the world, what existed in nature, but which it had never seen before. His fate accorded, for it is the nature of man to hate a benefactor, as in Galileo, Vasalius (the anatomist) &c.' (R.B. Beckett ed.: John Constable's Correspondence, vol . 6, Ipswich 1968, p. 232).

In 1836 in a lecture to the Royal Institution Constable enlarged on this: 'To Wilson, who was ten years the senior of Reynolds, may justly be given the praise of opening the way to the genuine principles of Landscape in England; he appears at a time when this art, not only here but on the Continent, was altogether in the hands of the mannerists. It was in Italy that he first became acquainted with his own powers; and no doubt the influence of the works of Claude and the Poussins enabled him to make the discovery. But he looked at nature entirely for himself and remaining free from any tinctures of the style that prevailed among living artists, both abroad and at home, he was almost wholly excluded from any share of the patronage which was liberally bestowed on his contemporaries.' (R.B. Beckett ed., John Constable's Discourses, Ipswich 1970, pp. 66-67).

Constable's visual homage to Wilson is evident in the copies he made of the two paintings lent to him by Farington, and which he later owned himself. His admiration is also reflected in the drawing he made of Sir George Beaumont's memorial stone to Wilson at Coleorton (Victoria & Albert Museum, London, no. 815-1888).
Royal Academy