One of the really fascinating things about studying an artist is learning who the person behind the work really was. We can see plenty in the work of the great masters; without knowing who the person behind the art was, however, there is much we miss.
Looking at John Constable’s work, it is easy to think of him as “just” a landscape artist. This is, in fact, what many people in England thought of him during his life. He set out to prove them wrong, and he did so in an incredible way.
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To Constable, painting nature was a way of portraying truth. In a world filled with rapid change, he was drawn to that which was steady. Even though it sometimes meant his work not being accepted by his peers, he sought to paint what he saw as real.
“Painting is but another word for feeling.” ~John Constable
Constable was born as the second son of a merchant and farmer in 1776, the year the American Revolution began. As the second son, he would normally be free to pursue his dreams. As his older brother was unable to take on the family business though, this lot fell to John.
Needless to say, he did not want that honor.
Eventually, he convinced his parents to free him from this duty so that he could pursue an education in art. At the age of 23, he entered the Royal Academy Schools as a probationer in 1799. By 1803, he was allowed to exhibit.
As hard as Constable worked and as talented as he was, his art was not widely accepted in England. This seems odd, especially since he is now considered one of the most loved English painters. In order to understand this though, it is important to understand what was happening at the time.
Constable grew up in a world torn by revolution. He was born the year the American Revolution began, and he was 13 when the French Revolution took place. Politically and socially, change was happening rapidly. Religious and philosophical beliefs were also changing, and the art world showed these changes.
Around the turn of the 19th century, people were not interested in landscapes. They did not want to see life as it was; rather, they wanted to see life as it could be. Change and revolution called for images of epic heroes and mythical stories. The Suffolk countryside that Constable loved so much was considered quaint, but not “real” art.
During his time at the Royal Academy School, John learned about all different types of art. He learned how to paint mythical scenes into his landscapes and how to make a portrait look incredibly lifelike.
He saw these skills as leading him away from his true purpose, however, and he chose not to “play along.” He said that he would instead show the world that there was “room enough” for his work. And so he did.
Constable loved to paint the scenes that had meant so much to him growing up. In doing so, he could both preserve a world that was bowing to change and honor the people that lived in his society. His paintings were of everyday scenes, like a farmer in a field or workers at a mill. However, his passion for the landscape made those pictures come alive.
In order to faithfully show the English landscape – the movement of the trees, the changing forms of the clouds – he took to “sketching” with oil paints rather than pencils. At that time, most artists would observe a scene and sketch it on paper in black and white. They would then take that sketch back to their studio to paint.
Constable realized that he could not truly capture the reality of the landscape by doing this. So, he devised another way! He used a portable case to bring his oil paints and “sketched” on the scene. Normally, oil painting is very time and labor intensive. It doesn’t lend itself well to a quick study.
He figured out a way to work with his scenes quickly, making quick paintings that he could later refine. In doing so, he studied things like cloud and wave formations very closely. He wanted to portray everything about them. His work actually rivaled that of meteorologists of the day!
Be sure to record John Constable in your Timeline of the Arts.
John Constable lived from 1776 to 1837. He was born less than a month before the Declaration of Independence was signed! There are many things that happened during his life. The American Revolution stretched from 1776 to 1783, and the French Revolution happened in 1789. The wars led by Napoleon, which affected much of Europe, lasted from 1803 to 1815.
Popular composers during this time include Ludwig von Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, and Frederic Chopin.
Hands-On Activity: Cloud Study!
Constable loved the English landscape.
“I associate my ‘careless boyhood’ with all that lies on the banks of the Stour. Those scenes made me a painter and I am grateful.” ~John Constable
Growing up toward the end of the Enlightenment, many people thought his work was beneath them. They saw landscapes as not being worth their time. John Constable saw them differently: he used them both to portray and to study the countryside he loved. He saw his art as both art and science!
“Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then, may not a landscape be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but experiments?” ~John Constable
Today, we’re going to mix art and science too! This activity can either be done in one day or over several days. Do whatever best fits your needs!
For this activity, you’ll need some medium to heavy-weight paper. A sketchpad will do well, but watercolor paper will work even better. You’ll also need some colored pencils and watercolor or acrylic paints – whichever you like best!
Find a place outside in which you have a good view of the sky. This can be your back yard, a park, or a field. Take out your paper and pencils or paints, and then take a few minutes to really observe.
Clouds are fun to study, and drawing or painting makes you think about them in a different way. Think about their size, shape, color, and movement. Do they stay in one place, setting a peaceful scene? Or do they move quickly across the sky, giving a feeling of excitement or anticipation?
When you have an idea of what you want to do, grab your materials and just start drawing or painting. Don’t worry about it being “perfect.” This isn’t your finished art work! It’s a way for you to record what’s happening in real time so that you have something to work off of later. Feel free to make as many sketches as you want.
When you’re done, carefully pack up your sketches (you might need to wait a few minutes for them to dry) and bring them back to your “studio space.” Now it’s time to make your final piece!
Lay out your sketches and really look at them for a few minutes. Figure out what you really like from each, then plan out your finished piece. If you want to sketch it out lightly with colored pencils, feel free!
Using either watercolor or acrylic paint, create your finished piece. Try to focus on what you observed outside – the color, shape, size, and movement of the clouds. Remember what they made you feel – calm, excited, happy – and think of that while you are painting. Let others see what you saw!
John Constable lessons at Khan Academy
Constable: A Country Rebel – This art history lesson is designed for older students (and for parents or teachers!). It has some fantastic information about his work and life!
A Collection of Paintings by John Constable – This video shows 248 of Constable’s work accompanied by classical music.
Share Your Masterpiece!
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