"The first impression and a natural one is, that the fine arts have risen or declined in proportion as patronage has been given to them or withdrawn, but it will be found that there has often been more money lavished on them in their worst periods than in their best, and that the highest honours have frequently been bestowed on artists whose names are scarcely now known."
- From his Lecture to the Literary and Scientific Institution at Hampstead, 25 July 1836
John Constable looked closely at the properties of shifting light and the movements of clouds, creating paeans to actual places and times of day. Like his contemporary, Joseph Mallord William Turner, Constable was a product of his times, but Constable's work more anticipated the concerns of the Impressionists.
In 1799, when Turner was already a member of the Royal Academy, Constable entered its school as a student. Unlike Turner, Constable painted landscape with an eye to verisimilitude. His more prosaic views of nature, following the traditions of such Dutch masters as Ruisdale and Cuyp, were unfashionable. Constable was thirty-nine before he sold a picture, and in his fifties before he was invited to join the Royal Academy.
Constable's career was spent creating poetic expressions of his native Stour Valley. During the summers he would work in the village of East Berghold, where he was born. This region of Suffolk and the Stour Valley came to be known as Constable country. There he made sketches, both painted and drawn. These "notes" would become the basis for the large and ambitious canvases that he would prepare in London for the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy. Constable's sketches of skies and sites such as Dedham Lock and Mill are regarded today as important works that capture the spirit and feeling of the countryside, possible to attain only when the artist is working directly from nature.
One of the earliest Western European artists to study changing light and atmospheric conditions so closely, Constable kept notes and diaries recording weather conditions and times of day. In working out-of-doors, Constable was anticipating the direction that the Impressionists would later take with such conviction. But for him, producing large canvases outside was impractical: his "six-footers", designed to catch the attention of Royal Academy visitors, were painted in his studio, as was common practice until the Impressionists decided to do more than sketch outside.
Constable, who made nature his subject, was dedicated to understanding and developing new ways to describe its mutability. The sky especially engrossed him. "The sky is the source of light in nature and governs everything", he remarked, and his obsession yielded the largest body of sky and cloud studies produced in Western art. He also experimented with different techniques, such as stippling the canvas with white flecks to capture the effect of wet leaves and dew, or incorporating dots of red that would make the green of the vegetation stand out and register more prominently. These attempts, like his outdoor studies, were an important inspiration to the later Impressionists.
The death of his beloved wife, Mary, in 1828 affected Constable profoundly. His work became darker and more brooding, infused directly or indirectly with a sense of mourning. Though he was interested in the real appearance of things, he was not a dispassionate observer. His subjects had, as they did for all Romantic artists, strong personal meanings and ties; his attachment to nature was emotional as well as intellectual. An acquaintance of Wordsworth, Constable shared his belief in the beautiful, evocative aspects of nature and in the value of the humble. He also felt a strong affinity for poetry, occasionally exhibiting his works with lines of noted poems.
Although recognition for his work came slowly in England, Constable gained renown more rapidly in France. His Hay Wain was seen by Géricault in London at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1821. Géricault was so impressed with the work that, at his behest, it was bought by a French dealer and exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1824, where it won a gold medal. French artists such as Géricault and Delacroix admired Constable's freedom of brushwork and the freshness of his subject matter. He was a fundamental inspiration to the French Romantics and also to the French painters of landscape.
contributed by Gifford, Katya