Monday, March 2, 2015

John Constable by Tina Zhao


Self-Portrait Pencil and watercolor

Born in Suffolk, John Constable was best know for his Romantic landscape painting of his hometown, Dedham Vale, which is now known as “Constable Country”. “I should paint my own places best”, he wrote to his friend John Fisher in 1821, “painting is but another word for feeling”.

To understand Constable’s art, it is valuable to see where he stood in relation to his contemporary artists. The greatest artists who made the English School of landscape painting famous throughout the world were born within a few years of each other. John Constable was born on June 11th, 1776, when Joseph Mallord William Turner and Thomas Girtin were one-year-olds and Jogn Crome was a boy of eight. These artists have distinct English character in their paintings, distinct from the seventeenth century Dutch School or nineteenth-century French Impressionist School. Two general features are shared in common. One is the simple faith in nature, that nature is governed by invariable laws. To be natural meant to be reasonable. They thought nature is open to humans for contemplation and intuition. The second feature is light as a means of expression. Constable thought that light should be all natural and not artificial.

Constable’s most well-known painting was The Hay Wain (1821). 
                      The Hay Wain (1821)

The full-size sketch of the painting:

Let’s compare the sketch with the final drawing. The horse on the shore was deleted in the finish drawing to avoid distraction of viewer’s attention. And the dog on the shore looking at the hay wain was directing the viewer’s attention to it. Also in the finish drawing, a fisherman appeared in the grass to balance with the women who is washing clothes on the left. All of these details aim to make the only focus on the hay wain. The painting also imbedded several distinct features of Constable. The clouds, for example, was very realistic. Constable studied the clouds under all kinds of weather. One writer commented his clouds, “Seeing Constable’s dark clouds make me want to put on my rain coat.” The water in the painting also seemed to be slowly flowing. The white dots on the tree shed all the light onto the middle of the painting. Using the full-size sketch to draw the same landscape over and over again, Constable completed this masterpiece of a landscape that we all seem to know.

Another masterpiece of Constable was Wivenhoe Park (1816). 
                       Wivenhoe Park (1816)

Wivenhoe Park was painted in his early career and I was very impressed by it when I visited National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The detail of the painting was delicate and the red man in the boat was the highlight of the painting, making the whole picture complete and stopping the viewer’s attention from drifting away. Constable also rescaled the scene, resembling today’s panoramic camera. But the most important of all, seeing Constable’s landscape paintings gives me a scene of serenity. Through his painting, he brought us into the English countryside as if we are seeing the cows and water right before us. Constable liked to draw familiar things, but through the familiar landscape that we all know, he suggested a “relook” and it makes the familiar interesting.

Constable married his childhood friend Maria Bicknell in1816 and together they had 7 children.

Portrait of Maria Bicknell (1816)

In 1828, Maria died of tuberculosis and Constable was intensely saddened. He wrote to his brother, "hourly do I feel the loss of my departed Angel—God only knows how my children will be brought up...the face of the World is totally changed to me." After the death of his beloved wife, the style of Constable’s painting changed.

Hadleigh Castle: The Mouth of the Thames- Morning, after a stormy night (1829)

In the painting, the dark clouds covered the entire sky, only a little light escaped. The ruins of the castle and the shepherd all indicated a sense of sadness and loneliness.

Stonehenge (1835)

Double rainbow often appeared in Constable’s later artworks. The rainbows seem to represent Constable and Maria—although beautiful together, they could never come across each other any more.

Works Cited:
Key, S. (1948). John Constable, his life and work. London: Phoenix House.

Xiao gu liao hui hua (Di 1 ban. ed.). (2014). Beijing: Citic City.

Portrait of Maria Bicknell. (n.d.). Retrieved March 3, 2015, from

The Hay Wain. (n.d.). Retrieved March 3, 2015, from

Wivenhoe Park. (n.d.). Retrieved March 3, 2015, from

Studies for 'The Hay Wain', by John Constable, 1821. (n.d.). Retrieved March 3, 2015, from

Self Portrait. (n.d.). Retrieved March 3, 2015, from

Stonehenge. (n.d.). Retrieved March 3, 2015, from

Hadleigh Castle. (n.d.). Retrieved March 3, 2015, from

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