Artists Illustrating Boys' Fashions: John Constable (English, 1776-1837)

Figure 1.--Constable painted the Lambert children in 1825. The boys appear to be wearing skeleton suits with neck ruffles. I wonder if that is one of the boys' caps in the lower right hand corner. Click on the image to see the artist's original rough oil sketch.

John Constable is perhaps the most acclaimed English landscape artist, often described as the father of modern landscaping. His effort to capture light as it played onnclouds and the English ountryside helped to inspire the Impresionist movement. He expalined his goal, "to increase the interest for and study of the Rural Scenery of England with all its endearing associations, its amenities, and even in its most simple locations; abounding as it does in grandeur, and every description of Pastoral Beauty." He also, however, did a few portraits--primarily because his landscapes did not sell. We know of only one which included children, The Lambert Children. This provides some insights into how wealthy English children dressed in the early 19th century.


John was the fourth child and second son of Ann and Golding Constable. His father was a successful local corn merchant. Corn at the time referred to grain in general. He had inherited the business of an uncle. He operated two water mills and owned 90 acres of land.


John was born in 1776, a year after his contemporary Turner. He was born in East Bergholt, Suffolk. We know little about his childhood, but his interest in the English country side ceratinly developed as a child. He also exhibited an early interest in art.


John was educated at Dedham Grammar School. He distinguished himself for draughtsmanship, but his scholarship was lackluster. He worked for a brief period in the family business. He desired, however, to be an artist. He met Sir George Beaumont, an amateur artist, in 1795. He showed Constable landscape by Claude Lorrain, further interesting him in painting. John finally convinced his father to allow him to study art and in 1799 he entered the Royal Academy. Constable met Turner, an artist he is often compared with, at the Academy. They never, however became friends. Turner was more successful in his career, becoming rich and famous while Constable had difficulty selling his works. At the Academy he followed the normal program of drawing from models and plaster casts as well as attending anatomy classes. There was little in the program that addressed his interest in landscaping.


Constable exhibited his first landscapes in 1802. As he worked his destinctive style gradually emerged. He made hundreds of sketches in Stour Valley during 1812-14. He loved the English countryside. Most of his best work was done of outdoor scenes in his native Suffolk and his London home in Hampstead. Constable worked in the open air which was an inovation at the time. He was convinced that the study of nature was central. He refused to "learn the truth second-hand". He wpild returned to his studio to finish his paintings. His larger works were first sketched full-size in oil. The sketch was then used as a model to produve the finished landscape.He exibited one of his noted works, "Boat building" at the Royal Academy in 1815. Perhaps his masterpiece, "Salisbury Cathedral" was exhibed at the Royal Academy in 1823. The King of France awarded him a gold medal in 1824. His landscapes were not well received at the time, especially in England. The Royal Academy refused Constable full membership until 1829, and only by one vote. While his landscapes were little noticed in England, they did receive some attention accross the Channel in France. Constable Haywain at the Royal Academy in 1821 to little notice. He exhibited in the Salon, Paris during 1824. Eugène Delacroix was impressed. The Barbizon painters were motivarted to begin painting outdoors following Constable's example. He only sold 20 paintings in England in his lifetime and then not until he was nearly 40 years old. He did not receive critical acclaim until he was 52, only 8 years before his death. He passed away in London in 1837.


Constable is considered by many as the father of modern landscape painting. His landscapes were revolutionary, eplining why he had difficulty selling them. He was not interestede in the formal or "picturesque" depiction of nature as redered by artists like Gainsborough. He was the first important English artist to focus exclusively on the rural scenes, without historical associations. Constable tried to capture the changing patterns of light and clouds. He observed clouds moving across the country sky endlessly. He managed to capture the scenes andcte play of light and clouds in a way no other artist had mangaged to do. He used his colors to create tonal values. He would juxtapose thin washes of the dark colors heliked to work with. The results were a major influence on the Impressionists, who were also absorbed with how to capture light. Constable expalined his goal, "to increase the interest for and study of the Rural Scenery of England with all its endearing associations, its amenities, and even in its most simple locations; abounding as it does in grandeur, and every description of Pastoral Beauty."

Empire Fashions

Constable is primarily associated with landscape painting, but he also did portrait painting. That was the surest way an artist have of earning lucrative commissions. As a matter of purse chance, much of Constable's active years coincided with the Empire/Regency Era. Thus many of the portraits he did provide us fascinting glimses into the Empire fashions and families, of course as it developed in England. What we see in ngland is not greatly differet from what we see on the Continent..


Although landscaping that was his focus, he also did a few portraits. Even after membership in the Academy in 1829, Constable had little commercial success. He did the portraits primarily to actually seel some works.

Lambert Portrait

Constable painted the Lambert children seen here in 1825. He first sketched the scene in roughly in oil. (The oil sketch can ber viewed by clicking on the above image.) There is also a chalk study. They were preparatory works for this famous portrait of the Lambert children. Both are fully documented in Constable's letter to his wife, dated January 21, 1825 in which he referred to "having just made a little sketch in oil." The children were visiting their grandfather, William Lambert, who was originally intended to appear in the portrait. However, the family decided that he might "lose his consequence and look really like a schoolmaster with his pupils," so a pet donkey took his place. The boys appear to be wearing skeleton suits with neck ruffles. I wonder if that is one of the boys' caps in the lower right hand corner.

Family Life

Constable's father died in 1816, leaving him financially secure. He married Maria Bicknell, whom he had courted for 7 years and was passion of his life. The newly weds moved to Hampstead Heath, London, in 1821. They had seven children, five of which became artists. Some works once attributed to Constable are now recognized as the work of his son Lionel. I do not think Constable ever painted his own children. Mary tragically died at age 40 of tuberculosis. Constable was devestated.

English Romanticism

The two great English artists of the Romantic era were both landscaspists, John Constable and J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). Note their life span encompassed on the great upheavals of human history--the Industrial Revolution. Yet they did not touch on it. Constable in particular absolutely avoided it with all his bucolic landscapes, creating the impression of an idelic agraian life. One author described it as 'divine benevolence'. And all of this in the middle of the societal chaos of the Industrial Revolution. The Romantics almost by definition were concerned with arts and spirtual matters and seeking utopia. Thus they saw the Industrial Revolution as an unmitigated disaster. Constable's landscapes convey surenity, however, that did not exist in rural England at the time. It nerverexisted and particulsrly at the time Cobstable painted. It was the era of the Encloure. Large landholders were acquiring the land of small holders. They were also over turning the ancuient right of people to previously public lands. Tennant farmers were being thrown off the greatestates. People in the countryside lived in misderable hovels, not cozy cottasges. None of this appears in Constable's beautiful landscaspes which convey nothing but an imagined unchanging and unchallenged tranquility.


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Created: May 18, 2002
Last updated: 4:10 AM 12/13/2017