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Constable's strongest inspiration came from the scenes of boyhood, which he said 'made me a painter'. The few square miles of Suffolk around East Bergholt are now known as Constable Country.
Constable is often described as the greatest painter of the English landscape, but it is truer to call him the painter of Suffolk, or rather the Stour valley the 12 square miles around his birthplace in East Bergholt, which even in his own day became known as Constable Country. He could never bring his extraordinary gifts to bear on a landscape which held no personal meaning for him. Apart from Suffolk, only Hampstead, Salisbury and to a lesser extent Brighton stimulated the intense observation and passionate feeling which the hall-mark of his best paintings.
Constable seems to have realised where his genius lay in 1802, while studying at the Royal Academy in London. He wrote to his old sketching companion John Dunthorne, the village glazier, that he was determined to come home and study nature, the source of all originality in art. His plan was to make a 'pure and unaffected representation of the scenes of his childhood. With this end in mind, he not only spent that summer and autumn in East Bergholt, but also bought a cottage in the village to use as a permanent studio.
Almost every summer for more than 15 years he returned to the village to make detailed records in his sketchbooks of every object, activity or view that caught his interest. The summer of 1813 was particularly valuable. The weather was magnificent, and Constable walked daily in the Stour valley, sketching obsessively. 'I almost put my eyes out with that practice', he wrote later.
His sketchbook for that year has fortunately been preserved, and clearly shows his working methods. The tiny drawings measure no more than 3½" x 4¾", but cover an extraordinary range of subjects: the river and its barges, sheep sheltering from the heat under a tree, cottages, farms and churches, mooring posts and water lilies, ploughmen and their horses, and dozens of little details, including the cuff of a jacket. Many amounts to fully realised compositions and almost all the rural themes which he later illustrated in his paintings are seen here.
These scenes, Constable said, made him a painter, and his feeling for their visual beauty was enhanced by his understanding of the work being done in the locks and towpaths, boatyard and meadows. His apprenticeship in his father's mills had taught him not to look only at the buildings, trees and people. He watched the sky too and the river with the professional eye of a miller, whose livelihood depended on understanding the weather and its ever-shifting moods.
Yet despite Constable's devotion to Suffolk and its countryside, the great majority of the finished works were painted not in East Bergholt, but in London with the sketchbooks and some small oil-studies serving as 'notes'. Just one early picture, Boatbuilding, was completed in the open air; the other major canvases were painted in his London studio during the winter months.
For the famous 'six-footers' exhibited at the Royal Academy, Constable went through one more stage of preparation which is probably unique amongst artists: he painted a full-size oil sketch, to work out the composition and blocks of colour he would finally use. These sketches have also been preserved and are much admired by modem critics for the freedom with which he used his palette knife to apply the paint, capturing the effects of the English weather with all its changes.
But the finished versions of the great canal scenes show Constable's genius at its height. Here, as nowhere else, he captured the atmospheric effects of early summer in the open air, the movement of clouds across the broad Suffolk sky and the impact of sunlight on the waters of his beloved Stour.
To convey on canvas the sun's rays glittering on the river surface and dancing on the foliage of trees agitated by the wind, Constable abandoned the 'fiddle browns' of traditional landscape painting for the true colours and textures of nature. Restricted by the paints available to him, he used pure yellow and white for the flash of sunlight on dew, and captured the motion of clouds and the racing wind with rapid, nervous brushwork whose sensitivity has never been rivalled.
Writer – Marshall Cavendish