JOHN CONSTABLE: A REVOLUTIONARY LANDSCAPE ARTIST

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By Chandana Ranaweera 

During the early 20th century portraits and landscapes were the most popular genres of paintings in England. Aided by this trend, John Constable – an artist in that era who had an innate talent for landscape painting – rose to fame as a revolutionary artist in no time. Constable was born on 11 June 1776 in Suffolk, England to Golding Constable – a wealthy corn merchant. The natural scenery in his home village prompted the young Constable to pick up a sketchbook and start drawing. His father – although was supportive of Constable’s painting – urged him to remain in the family business professionally and continue drawing as a hobby. However, Constable managed to convince his father to let him pursue a career in art. 

His formal arts education was at the Royal Academy School. It is said that artists are born, not made. But there is always room for improvement even for an artist with a born talent. Constable was a fine example for this. The talented artist made most of his formal arts education and by the time he was merely 21 he had already become a reputed name or rather a brand of art in England’s artsphere.  

Constable loved Mother Nature unconditionally. He had made a habit of drawing whichever the natural beauty happened to catch his eye. Witnessing a grown tree standing tall with its roots firmly grasping the earth and branches hovering over land providing much shade made Constable elated. As one would imagine he was against cutting trees but he also despised harming or vandalising a tree, even with an act as miniscule as nailing a notice board to a tree. 

His landscape paintings contain an advanced beauty which can carry the viewer into the painting. He paid attention to every last detail. Instead of just painting his imagination he made sure all the details are properly and intricately displayed in his paintings. Naturality, depth of objects, shape and size, as well as reflection/refraction of the sunlight were cleverly portrayed by Constable in his landscape paintings. 

One of the most popular and critically-acclaimed landscape paintings of Constable is the painting titled, ‘The Hay Wain’ (1821). When it was exhibited for the first time the painting received a modest amount of praise and attention but when the painting was again exhibited three years later in Paris, it became an instant crowd favourite. The painting earned Constable a gold medal in a competition and it is also reported that some contemporary artists were so inspired by this painting which had made them make slight changes for the better to their own artistic styles.       

Constable’s knack of paying much attention to detail not only made his paintings intricate, but also reflects the glories of the past. His painting titled, ‘Salisbury Cathedral’ which is on permanent display at Tate Britain (National Gallery of British Art) isn’t just a marvellous landscape work but also a fine way of studying and admiring Goth-style architecture much popular during the time. Constable had tried so hard to depict the rays of sunshine bouncing off the walls of the cathedral and while doing so, inadvertently bringing out architectural details of the building. 

All his paintings are life-like and some of them have some interesting stories woven around them. One such painting of Constable is titled, ‘Rain’. While on display in an exhibition this particular painting had managed to ‘fool’ a viewer into thinking that he was actually caught in rain. It is said that this particular viewer, after admiring Constable’s painting for a long time, quickly grabbed his raincoat and covered himself with it. Constable revolutionised the landscape painting at the time, creating a brand and a unique style for himself but upon admiring his painting up close it can be seen that Constable had drawn inspiration from the French painter, draughtsman, and etcher of the Baroque Era, Claude Lorrain. It is said that the instructions given by the painter Guertin had also helped Constable to develop immensely, especially in the medium of watercolours. 

Constable used different shades of similar colours to bring out the details in a painting as well as to give it life. His perception of depth was accurate and he used colours and its shades to paint objects near and far to bring out depth. 

Unlike other painters of the time Constable wasn’t really inspired by religion or mythical stories. Instead of painting biblical stories of the life of Jesus Christ Constable dedicated the whale of his artistic career in showing the world how beautiful and fascinating the sceneries of his country are. Apart from paintings Constable had also done a few sculptures of torsos. 

However, as is the case with many artists, Constable too wasn’t admired the way he should have been or deserved during his lifetime. He died on 31 March 1837 and after his death the demand for his paintings grew by leaps and bounds in countries both from the East and the West. He is now considered as a painter who revolutionised painting while many of his paintings are preserved in museums and private galleries across Europe and in the USA.     

(Translated by Sanuj Hathurusinghe)