John Constable

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I. General Facts
John Constable was an English Romantic painter. Born in Suffolk, he is known principally for his landscape paintings of Dedham Vale, the area surrounding his home--now known as "Constable Country"--which he invested with an intensity of affection. "I should paint my own places best", he wrote to his friend John Fisher in 1821, "painting is but another word for feeling". His most famous paintings include Dedham Vale of 1802 and The Hay Wain of 1821. Although his paintings are now among the most popular and valuable in British art, he was never financially successful and did not become a member of the establishment until he was elected to the Royal Academy at the age of 43. He sold more paintings in France than in his native England. 
II. Early Career
John Constable was born in East Bergholt, a village on the River Stour in Suffolk, to Golding and Ann Constable. His father was a wealthy corn merchant, owner of Flatford Mill and, later, Dedham Mill. Although Constable was his parents' second son, his older brother was mentally handicapped and so John was expected to succeed his father in the business. He worked at the corn business after leaving school, but his younger brother Abram eventually took over the running of the mills.
In his youth, Constable embarked on amateur sketching trips in the surrounding Suffolk countryside that was to become the subject of a large proportion of his art. These scenes, in his own words, "made me a painter, and I am grateful"; "the sound of water escaping from mill dams etc., willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts, and brickwork, I love such things." He was introduced to George Beaumont, a collector, who showed him his prized Hagar and the Angel by Claude Lorrain, which inspired Constable. Later, while visiting relatives in Middlesex, he was introduced to the professional artist John Thomas Smith, who advised him on painting but also urged him to remain in his father's business rather than take up art professionally.
In 1799, Constable persuaded his father to let him pursue art, and Golding even granted him a small allowance. Entering the Royal Academy Schools as a probationer, he attended life classes and anatomical dissections as well as studying and copying Old Masters. Among works that particularly inspired him during this period were paintings by Thomas Gainsborough, Claude Lorrain, Peter Paul Rubens, Annibale Carracci and Jacob van Ruisdael. He also read widely among poetry and sermons, and later proved a notably articulate artist. By 1803, he was exhibiting paintings at the Royal Academy.
In 1802 he refused the position of drawing master at Great Marlow Military College, a move which Benjamin West (then master of the RA) counseled would mean the end of his career. In that year, Constable wrote a letter to John Dunthorne in which he spelled out his determination to become a professional landscape painter:
For the last two years I have been running after pictures, and seeking the truth at second hand. I have not endeavored to represent nature with the same elevation of mind with which I set out, but have rather tried to make my performances look like the work of other men...There is room enough for a natural painter. The great vice of the present day is bravura, an attempt to do something beyond the truth. 
His early style has many of the qualities associated with his mature work, including a freshness of light, color and touch, and reveals the compositional influence of the Old Masters he had studied, notably of Claude Lorrain. Constable's usual subjects, scenes of ordinary daily life, were unfashionable in an age that looked for more romantic visions of wild landscapes and ruins, though he did make occasional trips further afield; for example, in 1803 he spent almost a month aboard the East Indiaman ship Coutts as it visited south-east coastal ports, and in 1806 he undertook a two-month tour of the Lake District. But he told his friend and biographer Charles Leslie that the solitude of the mountains oppressed his spirits; Leslie went on to write:
His nature was peculiarly social and could not feel satisfied with scenery, however grand in itself, that did not abound in human associations. He required villages, churches, farmhouses and cottages. In order to make ends meet, Constable took up portraiture, which he found dull work--though he executed many fine portraits. He also painted occasional religious pictures, but according to John Walker, "Constable's incapacity as a religious painter cannot be overstated." 
Constable adopted a routine of spending the winter in London and painting at East Bergholt in the summer. And in 1811 he first visited John Fisher and his family in Salisbury, a city whose cathedral and surrounding landscape were to inspire some of his greatest paintings.


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