A little more John Constable (1776-1837) today as we wash the taste of Francis Bacon out of our mouths.
Constable was born on the River Stour in Suffolk; his parents were Golding and Ann (Watts) Constable. Golding was a wealthy corn merchant, and owner of a small ship, The Telegraph. John was the second son, but his older brother was mentally disabled and John was expected to pursue the family business. John dutifully worked in the business once leaving school, but a series of sketching trips in Suffolk and Essex made it clear that John was more artist than businessman.
Constable would paint the English countryside for the rest of his life. Early on he met George Beaumont, a collector who showed young John a series of pictures that opened up his eyes to the possibilities of art; and Thomas Smith, a professional artist who encouraged John to paint (but suggested he remain in the family business).
In 1799, John persuaded his father to let him pursue a career in art, and the elder Constable provided a small allowance. John entered the Royal Academy Schools and attended life classes and studied and copied the old masters. He would exhibit paintings at the Royal Academy by 1803. He was also a devotee of religious sermons and poems.
John had a childhood friendship with Maria Bicknell, which later blossomed into a deep and abiding love. The marriage was opposed by Maria’s family, who saw John as a social inferior; John’s parents approved, but would not support the couple until John was more financially secure in his art. They were married in 1816.
John was not a very financially successful artist; and he struggled to raise the seven children they had. In 1828, Maria became ill with tuberculosis and died; she was only 41. Constable never fully recovered from the blow, and wrote hourly do I feel the loss of my departed Angel—God only knows how my children will be brought up. He did manage, however, and Constable cared for his children for the rest of his life.
In 1814, John visited the ruins of Hadleigh Castle while touring Essex with his friend, Reverend W.W. Driffield. He wrote to Maria: there is a ruin of a castle which from its situation is really a fine place – it commands a view of the Kent hills, the nore and north foreland & looking many miles to the sea. He made drawings in his sketchbook and based the painting (and preliminary sketches) upon this first impression.
This was a particularly difficult time for John. It looked as if his plans to marry Maria would come to naught, and that the position of their mutual families would keep them apart. He wrote that the melancholy grandeur of the sea shore reflected his mood, and he put aside the drawings for some time.
John returned to his previous sketches following Maria’s death. This scene of loneliness and desolation, of ruin and remorse, must have been deeply aligned with his own mourning and sense of loss. This picture, some six feet in length, was a work that helped lift the painter out of his depression.
It’s been said that if Turner was a painter of the sun, then Constable was a painter of the sky. It is almost as if he painted his entire autobiography in the sky. In this picture, a solitary shepherd or wayfarer (along with his dog), comes upon the majestic and romantic castle ruins. One of the towers has a deep tear in its very center, as if rent by a heavenly finger. Holding a staff, the figure is a pilgrim, or a searcher; not unlike the shepherds who found their way to Bethlehem. (It is possible that he is one of the attendant cattle herders, but his isolation from the cattle and holding of the staff makes the probability of his being a spiritual pilgrim too compelling.)
A herder and cattle are visible in the distance; they, at one with nature, take the landscape for granted. And the sky above, melancholy with clouds, is broken by shafts of heavenly light. The sea, equally eternal, is brilliantly illuminated by the shafts of light.
The palpable sense of mystery, of eternity, of the sublime is overwhelming. No ordinary landscape, Constable’s picture of Hadliegh Castle is a man’s soul laid bare.