Willy Lott's House at Flatford Mill
"In such an age as this, painting should be understood, not looked on with blind wonder, nor considered as a poetic aspiration, but as a pursuit, legitimate, scientific and mechanical." (Quoted in Constable by John Sunderland P15-16)
For many centuries art had been all about blind wonder. The only real function of art in Europe, from the fourth century onwards was to provide imagery for the Catholic Church. This had begun to change with the fifteenth century Renaissance, the pace of change quickening with the scientific and industrial revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The English landscape painter John Constable was scientific in his careful observation of the world, and in his refusal to accept preconceived ideas of what he should be seeing. Religion traditionally required a strict division between areas considered important and unimportant. Increasingly in the nineteenth century traditional categories did not make sense. Charles Darwin did not see plants and animals as immutable separately created species, some more important than others. Instead he saw all species of life, humanity included, as part of a continuum, with a sense of "actual passage" between them. Similarly in the world of art, the idea that painting of Biblical subjects or subjects from Classical history defined quality in art, was steadily undermined.
"My limited and abstracted art is to be found under every hedge and in every lane" Constable wrote. Ironically Constable's "scientific and mechanical" outlook resulted in paintings that are among the most poetic and popular in all of British art. Science was opening up a new and wider world view. Science looked at small things carefully, and showed big truths in the observations made. The paintings of Constable did the same thing.
John Constable was born on 11th June 1776 at East Bergholt in Suffolk's Stour Valley. He was the fourth child of a prosperous miller named Golding Constable. At the age of seven John was sent to boarding school, before being taken away from its harsh regime, and placed in the Grammar School at nearby Dedham. The regular walk to school each day along a shaded lane was later to be made famous in the painting Cornfield. It was this small world of childhood around East Bergholt, Dedham and Flatford Mill which was to become the source of Constable's art for the rest of his life. Dylan Thomas claimed that he never really left Cwmdonkin Park, near his home in Swansea where he played as a child. The park "grew up with me". A similar thing could be said of Constable and the small area of East Bergholt, Dedham, and Flatford Mill. Flatford Mill today is wonderful place for a Constable admirer to visit. Within a small and beautiful area the locations for so many of Constable's most famous pictures can still be seen.
Knowing early on that he wanted to be a painter, John started sketching in the fields around his home. He wanted to paint landscapes when they were not considered a fit subject for "proper" art. The young artist painted what he felt drawn to, and naturally ignored academic theories. Constable entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1799. This art school, the oldest in Britain, was housed at the time in Somerset House. Here many hours were spent trying to tutor a rough talent. There is no doubt that Constable struggled with the rudiments of correct drawing and painting. Perhaps this difficulty actually assisted a later avoidance of convention, and helped produce a style of directness. During his formative period Constable copied the work of Claude and Ruisdael, who were both well known for painting directly from nature.
The process of leaving convention behind began around 1802, in the first Dedham Vale painting. In this picture a great effort was made to imitate the different greens in the scene as closely as possible. The aim was to get away from the brown tones favoured at the time. Constable's friend C.R. Leslie wrote that "Sir George (Beaumont) recommended the colour of an old Cremona fiddle for the prevailing tone of everything, and this Constable answered by laying an old fiddle on the green lawn before the house" (quoted by John Sunderland in Constable). Turning his back on the Cremona fiddle made for a difficult working life. It was hard to sell his unfashionable paintings, and money was short. The situation was not helped by turning down a potential teaching job, and refusing to waste time painting portraits. After 1819 there was an attempt to work the system, by turning to the painting of large canvasses. Big pictures were more likely to be noticed by the Royal Academy. But in these pictures, typified by The White Horse, the scene was closed in, the view obstructed by trees at the back. The big pictures still present the same small, closely observed scene.
The Haywain. This image is copyright free
It was this small, closely observed scene that would continue to dominate Constable's work. There was a trip to the Lake District in 1806, a honeymoon tour of the south coast in 1816 after marrying Maria Bricknell, and a period researching cloud formations on Hampstead Heath in 1821 and 1822. But most of the time East Bergholt and its surrounding area provided Constable with his material. It was in this small area that Constable explored trends shaping the world as a whole. Constable clearly loved rural life, and felt the imminence of its passing away in the face of widespread industrialisation. In this sense he idealised the countryside. On the other hand Constable was a realist. He grew up in the country and knew the reality of life there. In a picture such as Flatford Mill: scene on a navigable river of 1817 he presents a scene near the lock at Flatford Mill. Initially it seems that two boys in the scene are playing, with a rope and a horse. On closer inspection it becomes clear those seemingly carefree boys boys are working, preparing to help pull a barge down the river. The Haywain of 1821, exhibited at the Royal Academy that year, marks a high point in Constable's work. Perhaps the balance between realism and idealisation was most successfully found in this painting. It is very much a painting telling of transition. The hay wagon is after all crossing the river. This is a crossing that promises a return, since the hay wagon is empty, and will soon be returning full. The Haywain does not present a one way trip, but a crossing and re crossing. The picture seems to present an idealised scene about to be lost. As it does so there is a suggestion that there are returns in all the apparent transitions of life.
Following the high point of the Haywain Constable's personal style tended to intrude more. Idealisation became more marked. By 1829 a noticeably greater romanticism was evident. The death of his wife Maria in 1828 and the unhappiness that followed probably explains this new romantic escapism. Constable felt he had much to escape from. Isolation marked Constable's later years. Friendship with C.R. Leslie, and the new patronage of Earl Egremont at Petworth did not fill the gap. Constable died aged sixty on 31st March 1837. It was only after his death that the world caught up with Constable. His view of nature was increasingly resonant of a scientific age in which big phenomena were explored through small details. His vision was scientific, mechanical, and yet his small world opened up something dreamy and idealised. As industrialisation gathered pace and more people moved into the growing towns, villages began to be seen as lost nirvanas. This idealisation was in its early stages, which perhaps explains Constable's general lack of popularity during his lifetime. But as the nineteenth century went on and urban living became the dominant way of life, pictures like The Haywain became icons. They were icons of romantic realism.