Constable: A Portrait by James Hamilton

James Hamilton is rightly famed for his biographies of J M W Turner and Thomas Gainsborough. John Constable presents him with a new challenge. Constable lacked Turner’s self-confidence and Gainsborough’s talent for making money. His family did not mean him to be an artist at all. They owned a milling business on the Stour in Suffolk, with a windmill, two watermills and a fleet of barges to take harvests to the Corn Exchange in London.

It was assumed that young Constable would manage this concern in due course. But he took to sketching on his countryside walks, and befriended a local character called John Dunthorne, who made musical instruments and was an amateur painter. Together they would take a couple of easels into the fields every day, set up in front of a view, and paint until the shadows changed significantly, then move on.

At the same time the next day they would return to the same spot, continue for half an hour, then move on again. This obsession with catching a moment of light was to become, Hamilton points out, the principle behind Impressionism, but Constable got there first and devoted his whole life to it.

Almost no one noticed. Wealthy collectors were not interested in landscape, accounting it inferior as a genre to history painting. Constable moved to London and gained admission to the Royal Academy Schools in 1800, where he did well, and went on to show landscapes at the annual Royal Academy exhibitions. Yet when he applied to become an associate of the Royal Academy he was repeatedly turned down. He finally succeeded in 1819, when he was 43; Turner had become one at 24.

Although neglected in England, Constable’s landscapes were acclaimed by French artists from the mid-1820s. When The Hay Wain (1821) was shown at the Royal Academy it failed to find a buyer. But shown at the Paris Salon in 1824 it caused a sensation. It is estimated that Constable sold only 20 paintings in Britain in his lifetime. In France he sold more than that in a few years, and he was awarded a gold medal by Charles X, King of France.

The obsession with catching a moment of light was to become the principle behind Impressionism, but John Constable got there first and devoted his whole life to it.

He could have become a portrait painter. Several of his early portraits are, Hamilton reckons, “masterpieces by any measure”. Yet landscape captivated him, and the most fascinating pages in Hamilton’s book come from his close scrutiny of Constable’s canvases. As he reports, they show Constable “enriching his browns and many greens with rose, yellow, red, purple and orange to an extent that is nearly shocking”. Nobody else in England was painting in oils in such a “devil-may-care” way, dragging white paint “onto river water painted dark green and still wet”, as in Flatford Mill from a Lock on the Stour.

Critics ridiculed his efforts. The white highlights he used to represent sparkling sunlight were lampooned as “whitewash falling from the ceiling”. However, the knowledge that no one cared about his landscapes gave Constable the freedom, Hamilton says, to evolve his own manner and “create painterly effects that may have surprised even him”. He learned to translate what he saw into paint, driven by “an amalgam of desperation and glorious independence”. Not that he ever gave up hope. His first public marker of “who he is and what he does”, Hamilton writes, is Dedham Vale, Morning, exhibited at the Academy in 1811. It was so important to Constable that he knelt before it and prayed.

Despite his sympathy with Constable’s artistic struggle, Hamilton shows that his character was far from attractive. He was a bigoted Tory and a paranoid hypochondriac. He was also sarcastic, gossipy, tight with money and abusive of other artists’ work, reportedly opining that Turner’s pictures were “only fit to be spat upon” and that William Collins’s landscapes looked “like a large cow turd”. What Hamilton calls his “fierce and purposeful selfishness” shows at its worst in his treatment of his wife, Maria. She was from an upper-middle-class family, and her marrying an unknown artist who was also a tradesman’s son riled her father, who was a solicitor to the admiralty, and her wealthy grandfather, the rector of East Bergholt, Constable’s native village, where he first met her in 1800. She was intelligent, loving and thoughtful, but not physically strong. The marriage started badly, with Constable suggesting she should not waste money on a bridal gown. Fortunately her father bought one. But she became, in Hamilton’s words, “a baby-producing machine”, giving birth to seven children before she died of tuberculosis aged 41.

Constable, to do him justice, did move the family from London to Brighton, then to Hampstead, out of concern for Maria’s health. Both places presented new challenges for his painting. Hampstead became, as Hamilton puts it, his “laboratory”, he was constantly looking at the skies, immersed himself in meteorology, and left more than 100 cloud studies painted in oil on paper or card. The elderly William Blake, calling on Constable and looking through his Hampstead sketchbook, exclaimed: “Why, this is not drawing but inspiration.” Constable, always a stickler for accuracy, replied: “I never knew it before. I meant it for drawing.”

At his death in 1837 Constable left letters and journals that fill eight volumes, and Hamilton conjectures that if all his paintings and drawings had vanished these eight volumes, edited by Ronald Beckett for the Suffolk Records Society, would ensure his centrality as a writer of stature. Judging only by what Hamilton includes, I am not so sure. The book is packed with extraneous detail, and I longed to take it by the scruff and shake some of its irrelevancies out. Against that, its magnificent color plates lift it on to another plane. They track Constable’s career from the early portraits to exciting sky effects like the tempestuous Rainstorm over the Sea, painted in Brighton. Such illustrations make Constable: A Portrait a treasure.

John Carey is a U.K.-based critic and professor of literature. He is the author of numerous books, including A Little History of Poetry, The Unexpected Professor, and What Good Are the Arts?