I’ve been reading this recent biography of the English landscape painter Constable (the first new biography in over 160 years) with a great deal of pleasure. It is a slow, precise book, much like the painter and his paintings which it describes. Best of all, to me, is the feeling on finishing the book that I like Constable as a man as well as I like him as a painter----a rare feeling when finishing an artist’s biography (I certainly didn’t feel that way reading the biographies of Gaugin, Giacometti, Suzanne Valadon, and even Bonnard----books which made me think less of them as people, even though I enjoy their artwork).
Constable was born in 1776, a year of revolutions, but his own revolution was a small and overlooked one: trying to make truthful, realistic, lively paintings of the eastern English landscape where he grew up. He spent his life in struggle to realize his aims, without much support outside of his middle-class farming-milling family and a few loyal friends. What struck me most while reading was how much waiting he had to do in his life: he was 24 when he officially became an art student at the Royal Academy, 26 when he first exhibited a painting, 34 when he had his first exhibition sale, 40 when he finally married his beloved Maria Bicknell (who he met when she was 12----she was 28 when they married at last, against the opposition of her family), and 53 when he finally got elected a full fellow of the Royal Academy. Sadly, the things he waited so long for didn’t last long, aptly proving the Latin lines that Constable had engraved on the side of the tomb he eventually shared with his wife: Alas! From how slender a thread hangs / All that is sweetest in life. He and his wife had only 12 years together before she died from tuberculosis, and Constable himself died from heart failure when he was only 61, leaving seven children and a range of beautiful landscape paintings as a legacy.
The other thing that struck me was Constable’s struggle with his art. He was a slow painter, exhibiting only half as many paintings as his peers generally did at most exhibitions throughout his life, and reworking his paintings over many months and even years. He was rarely satisfied with his efforts, feeling that nature was greater than art could ever be, and yet he kept trying to capture a shadow of it on his canvases. He wrote to a friend early in his art career about his “conviction of the truth of Sir Joshua Reynold’s observation that ‘there is no easy way of becoming a good painter.’ It can only be obtained by long contemplation and incessant labor.” Constable’s ideas about art were unusual for his time, focusing on ordinary subjects rather than the extraordinary. He wrote: “We derive the pleasure of surprise. . . in finding how much interest the art, when in perfection, can give to the most ordinary subjects.” He also said that, “Painting is but another word for feeling.” Feeling was something even the most critical of his critics acknowledged that he had in his paintings (despite their being ‘freckled,’ ‘pockmarked,’ ‘rough,’ and ‘crude’), although the melancholy darkness that lingered in the clouds and woods of some of his work wasn’t very popular with either critics or the populace at large.
His integrity, his kindness to his children, his ability to paint even while melancholy, his abiding love for his work----all these things endeared him to me, even though I already admired his artwork from seeing it many years ago at the Huntington Library in a visiting show of his ‘six-footers.’ I remember their freshness, the feeling of air and sky, the vividness of their colors and details, how life-like they felt. Now I only like him more, and admire his very original cloud studies in particular only more and more as time goes by.
John Constable Cloud Study oil on paper on board 1822