Childhood & Early Life
John Constable was born on June 11, 1776 in East Bergholt, Suffolk, England as the second son to Golding and Ann (Watts) Constable.
Golding Constable was the owner of two mills—Flatford (Bergholt) and Dedham (Essex) —and was a wealthy corn merchant.
John received his schooling from a boarding school in Lavenham and a day school in Dedham. He spent many childhood evenings creating numerous sketches of the Suffolk countryside or 'Skying' (sketching different cloud formations for days).
As his elder brother was intellectually disabled, John knew he had to take over the family's business. But after seeing 'Hagar and the Angel' (Claude Lorrain's painting) at Sir George Beaumont's house and meeting professional artist John Smith, he was inspired to pursue art.
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John Constable enrolled in the Royal Academy Schools (London) in 1799 after his father acquiesced and gave him a small allowance to study art.
At the Royal Academy he began studying and copying the works of the old masters, (paintings of a painter who worked in Europe before 1800) such as Thomas Gainsborough, Claude Lorrain, Annibale Carracci, etc, while also attending life classes and anatomical dissections.
The Great Marlow Military College offered him the post of drawing master in 1802 but John Constable refused as he wanted to continue sketching landscapes. The same year he unveiled his first painting exhibition at the Royal Academy.
He married Maria Elizabeth Bicknell at an English Anglican church in London in 1816 and the couple travelled to Weymouth and Brighton for their honeymoon. There, the seas inspired John to develop new techniques of brilliant colours and vivacious brushworks.
For the next few years he spent his winters in London and summers in East Bergholt, where he’d sketch. For financial stability he even began portraiture, including the occasional religious portraits.
He sold his first large-scale painting (approx 6 ft) in 1819 titled ‘The White Horse’. His other painting named ‘The Hay Wain’ (a view from Flatford Mill) won the Gold medal at the Paris Salon exhibition in 1824.
He found considerable fame and popularity in France, where he sold 20 paintings within a span of a few years. But in 1825, owing to numerous reasons, he quarrelled with John Arrowsmith (his French dealer) and couldn’t sell his paintings there anymore.
In spite of not being much successful in his homeland England, he vehemently protested against travelling internationally to promote his work.
Shortly before his wife Maria passed away in 1828, she had inherited £20,000 and John used this money to pay for the engraving of several mezzotints of some of his landscapes in preparation for a publication. However, the published folios weren’t successful and couldn’t attract enough subscribers.
His long-term affiliation with the Royal Academy continued as he was elected as an Associate in 1819, a member of the Academy in 1829 and appointed Visitor in 1831.
He delivered a series of lectures on landscape painting at the Royal Institution where he came up with a three-fold thesis; firstly, landscape painting is both, scientific and poetic; secondly, by imagination alone you cannot produce art that bears comparison with reality; and thirdly, no great painter was ever self-taught.
He delivered his last lecture at the Royal Academy in 1835 and stated that the Royal Academy was the “cradle of British art”.
Personal Life & Legacy
John Constable married childhood-friend Maria Elizabeth Bicknell in 1816 and together they had seven children; John Charles, Maria Louisa, Charles Golding, Isobel, Emma, Alfred and Lionel. Maria Elizabeth passed away in 1828 due to tuberculosis.
John Constable passed away on March 31, 1837 due to heart-failure and was buried at St. John-at-Hampstead next to his wife.