Constable's Great Landscapes: The Six-Foot Paintings
Early Life and Work
Constable grew up in East Bergholt, a village nestled in the Stour River valley of Suffolk County in the southeast of England. The rustic countryside was dominated by the meandering waterway, which had been made navigable for barge traffic in the eighteenth century. Though its gentle terrain lacked the sort of grand vistas and dramatic mountain scenery traditionally favored by landscape artists, Constable believed the Stour valley had set him on the path to his life's work, and he chose it as his primary subject for much of his career. The area became so associated with his painting that even during his lifetime it was called "Constable Country."
Constable's father was a prosperous merchant who expected him to take over the family milling business. Eventually he allowed his son, at the relatively late age of twenty-two, to enroll in the school of the Royal Academy in London, the leading British art society. Its annual exhibitions were crucial for establishing reputations, and Constable made his debut there in 1802. At first the young artist studied the landscapes of the old masters, but he soon decided that his painting would improve only by working directly from nature. During the summers, he returned home to Suffolk to create outdoor drawings and sketches that became the foundation for later studio paintings. As he explained to a friend, "Nature is the fountain's head, the source from whence all originality must spring."
Constable developed his craft slowly, continually reexamining his technique in the wake of criticism that his "finish" (the level of detail and overall surface effect) suffered from coarseness of handling. He voiced his own desire to overcome a certain bleakness in his finished studio work. Attempting to capture the brilliant light of the outdoors, in 1814 he began painting canvases in the open air, with striking results. One example is Wivenhoe Park, Essex, 1816, an extraordinarily fresh view of a friend's estate. Using finely executed brushwork, Constable carefully arranged a wealth of details across the wide vista, punctuating it with areas of light and shade to convey the radiance of a summer day. Synthesizing so many elements into a harmonious composition proved a useful exercise for his later large canvases.
Flatford Mill ("Scene on a navigable river"), 1817, was also completed primarily outdoors. It was Constable's most ambitious painting to date — a large depiction of working life along the river and an important step toward the six-foot paintings. The subject was one he knew intimately from his childhood: the view faces toward the red brick buildings of his father's mill, just beyond the river on which two barges head upstream. They have just been unhooked from the tow horse in order to be poled under the bridge (indicated by the timbers in the lower left foreground). The fine execution of this intricately rendered canvas drew much praise when it was exhibited, encouraging Constable to move on to his even larger canvases.
This impressive painting, the forerunner of Constable's great six-foot Stour scenes and then the largest known work by him, depicts a view toward his father's mill at Flatford. Corn ground in the mill was shipped in barges down the Stour, which had been made navigable by dredging and the installation of locks. After being unloaded, the barges were filled with coal or other cargo and towed by horses upriver. Constable based the painting on a drawing and worked on it extensively outdoors at the site.
Early Six-Foot Stour River Paintings
In 1816 Constable married his longtime sweetheart Maria Bicknell, granddaughter of the rector of East Bergholt. The couple settled in London, where the pressures of their growing family weighed heavily on the artist, who, at the age of forty, had yet to attain membership in the Royal Academy. His desire for greater professional recognition may have prompted his bold decision, in 1818, to begin working on monumental canvases intended to rival the landscapes of not only the old masters, but also his celebrated contemporary J.M.W. Turner. Over the next fourteen years Constable submitted the six-foot paintings regularly to exhibitions at the academy; size alone guaranteed these works would be noticed.
For the first six of these great landscapes, Constable chose the subject he knew best: daily life along the Stour River. In 1819 he exhibited The White Horse, an unassuming narrative of a tow horse being ferried from one bank of the river to another. Presented in heroic dimensions, this subject challenged the very conventions of landscape painting, which held that biblical, historical, or mythological themes set within idealized landscapes were alone capable of conveying significant moral or intellectual meaning and thus suited to grandeur of scale. The quiet rural scenes favored by Constable were thought appropriate for more modest canvases. Yet the sheer vitality of The White Horse, with its lush handling and fidelity to nature, earned Constable much critical acclaim. Soon thereafter he was voted an associate member of the academy.
While his smaller paintings could be developed easily from sketches painted from nature, Constable realized that the six-footers presented a new and complex set of technical challenges with regard to composition and level of finish, especially as he was unable to paint them outdoors directly before his subject. Rethinking the demands of his art, he undertook the remarkable step of creating full-scale sketches to try out his ideas. Although artists traditionally had used full-sized drawings on paper to help prepare their canvases, composing a preliminary full-scale sketch in oil on canvas for a large exhibition work was unprecedented. The sketches are powerful works in their own right and are widely admired today for their immediacy and vigorous brushwork. To Constable, however, they were considered to be simply the means to an end, and he kept them in his studio, never displaying or selling them. He in effect painted each composition twice — with all the commitment of time, effort, and expense (for materials) which that entailed — but he received critical attention and payment for only the finished work.
Constable seemed to tackle each full-scale sketch anew, never settling on a compositional formula. None of the sketches corresponds exactly with the resultant finished work; Constable added, removed, and rearranged elements in both sketches and final versions, continually rethinking and perfecting along the way. For example, the central foreground figures of the boy and horse in The Hay Wain (full-size sketch), c. 1820, the preliminary sketch for the third of his six-footers, were originally also included in the celebrated final version from 1821. Constable subsequently painted them out, thus sharpening the focus on the wagon, the crux of the picture. The sketch’s quick, broad strokes plot out the scene; large passages of the dark brown ground were left untouched. In comparison, the finished version is fluidly painted, rich in both coloring and description.
Like the other Stour River scenes, The Hay Wain depicts a workaday subject set in a specific place (the house to the left belonged to a tenant farmer, Willy Lott). Yet the title under which Constable originally exhibited the work, Landscape: Noon, suggests a more generalized intent, removing it from the realm of topographical painting and placing it within the more esteemed tradition of representing the cycles and moods of nature. The painting, which has since become Constable’s most famous image, was shown in Paris in 1824. The expressive force of its execution, with its rich layering of pigment, had a profound effect on French artists such as Eugène Delacroix.
Later Six-Foot Stour River Paintings
Over time Constable built up his sketches more elaborately with impastoed pigment, often using a palette knife to define forms; at the same time, the handling of finished works started to approach more closely the dynamic freedom of sketches. To capture the sparkle of sunlight, he applied flecks of white and yellow to the surface of paintings, an idiosyncratic touch that puzzled observers and eventually came to be derided as resembling snow or soapsuds. Critics began to note this effect with The Lock, 1824, the only vertically oriented canvas in the Stour River series.
The painting was enthusiastically received and sold on the first day of exhibition but, as the artist wrote to his confidant and patron John Fisher in 1824, "My execution annoys most of them and all the scholastic ones — perhaps the sacrifices I make for lightness and brightness is too much, but these things are the essence of landscape." The painting’s central protagonist, who presses down upon a crowbar to open the gate and release the water, introduces a jolt of action that distinguishes The Lock from the earlier, quieter Stour pictures.
A similar energy is found in the last of the finished canal scenes, The Leaping Horse, 1825. Here a rider and horse jump over a cattle barrier on a towpath upstream from the Flatford mill. Perhaps the most commanding of the Stour River six-footers, The Leaping Horse is certainly the least topographically accurate, as Constable freely rearranged landscape features to arrive at a more satisfying composition. He continued to rework it well after the painting had been exhibited as a finished piece — a practice he carried out increasingly throughout his career. For example, he painted out a willow tree to the right of the horse and added a twisted stump to the very heart of the scene in a flurry of brushstrokes. Indeed, the drama of the painting comes in large part from its dynamic handling: many areas are worked out roughly with a palette knife, and dabs of white highlight are strewn across the canvas.
Last Six-Foot Landscapes
Starting in the mid-1820s, Constable began to diversify his subject matter, seeking to avoid being cast as simply a regional painter. He realized that his chances of being elected a full member (or academician) of the Royal Academy were greater if he demonstrated the full range of his talent. He marked his departure from Stour valley subjects with Chain Pier, Brighton, 1827, which he apparently completed without the benefit of a full-scale sketch (though smaller ones exist). Located on the southern coast of England, Brighton had in recent times grown from a small fishing village into a fashionable resort. Constable felt the town had been vulgarized by the influx of tourists and the rash of new hotels and services to accommodate them. Nevertheless, his family resided there between 1824 and 1828 so that his wife, who suffered from tuberculosis, could take advantage of the therapeutic sea air. The painting, which originally measured nearly seven feet long before Constable cut it down, offers a panoramic view of the town's new chain-suspension pier and the buildings of the developed waterfront. These are juxtaposed against reminders of the traditional community — a boat, fisherman, and anchor — that are prominently displayed in the foreground. What interested Constable most about Brighton were the breakers and sky. Accordingly, he depicted the popular resort under blustery, overcast conditions — hardly the typical image of a tourist attraction.
In the fall of 1828, Maria Constable finally succumbed to her illness. Her devastated husband confided to a friend, "[A] void is made in my heart that can never be filled in this world. Constable's election to academician several months later did little to assuage his grief, for he felt despair at being unable to share his triumph with Maria. Nonetheless, he threw himself into work, sending Hadleigh Castle, a depiction of medieval ruins overlooking the mouth of the Thames River in southeast England, to the 1829 academy exhibition. Constable had visited the site in 1814, writing to Maria of its "melancholy grandeur." The painting itself projects a heightened sense of majesty, aligning the work more strongly with the conventions of historical landscape painting than any of his previous pictures — perhaps a conscious choice by an artist looking to prove his worth as an academician. The heavily overcast sky and the crumbling structures seem to hint at Constable's anguished state of mind, yet rays of sunshine break through the blanket of clouds as a vibrant light bathes parts of the countryside. The subtitle of the painting when exhibited was morning, after a stormy night, and Constable accompanied its entry in the exhibition catalogue with lines from "Summer" (1727) of James Thomson's poem The Seasons (1726 – 1730):
The desert joys
Wildly, through all his melancholy bounds
Rude ruins glitter; and the briny deep,
Seen from some pointed promontory's top
Far to the blue horizon's utmost verge,
Restless, reflects a floating gleam.
Toward the end of his life, Constable returned to the subject of the Stour valley in Stoke-by-Nayland, c. 1835–1837, which portrays the verdant countryside immediately surrounding a village near his native East Bergholt. He was attracted to old edifices such as Stoke's medieval church, writing that the tower "seems to impress on the surrounding country its own sacred dignity of character." Roughly executed with thick dabs of paint, Stoke-by-Nayland was long thought to be an exhibition canvas characteristic of Constable's rich, late style; however, the expressive handling, especially in the extraordinary sky, is much closer to that of known sketches than to known finished works. The painting is now acknowledged as a preparatory sketch for a six-footer that was never executed.
Constable died unexpectedly in 1837. Although he had struggled for recognition during much of his career, today he is counted among the most admired artists of the nineteenth century. His great landscapes, together with their exceptional full-scale sketches, remain his most enduring legacy.