Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Constable Portraits: The Painter and his Circle

Last week I went to the preview of the Constable Portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery .

John Constable (1776 - 1837) is renowned as an English landscape painter and consequently it's rather odd to find myself in an exhibition of his portraits. The appeal of the exhibition is the way the portraits tell you about his life and family, the way his career developed, the people who commissioned him to paint their portraits and the people who sat for him. In fact it's the first exhibition ever to explore his life through his portraits and the insights they being to Constable's approach to art and his relationships.

Constable portraits comprises about half his known output of around 100 portraits from various collections and also includes previously unseen and rediscovered portraits.

The exhibition follows a broadly chronological route through five sections
  • The family at East Bergholt
  • Friends and early group portraits
  • Romance and marriage
  • family Life
  • Mature portraits
The family at East Bergholt starts with two self-portraits - one a drawing and the other a painting, both of which are very fine (right).

It then progresses through his portraits of members of his family and his birthplace at East Bergholt.

This section includes corrections of former attributions. The major find is that a known Constable portrait had been misattributed. It was actually of his father Golding Constable rather than his school master in Dedham. See the very nice Guardian article which tells the story Portraits by the artist as a young man: Constable's parents finally identified

I gather his initiation into portraiture was seen primarily at this stage as a way of making money given that he came to painting rather later than most.

Romance and Marriage / Family Life The exhibition then moves through portraits and commissions from his early career to the point where he meets his future wife (paints her portrait), marries her and then begins to paint their babies! Apparently he was a doting father of seven children and, from the end of 1828, he was also a single parent after his wife died.

Of the nearly 50 works on display - oil portraits, watercolours and sketches - a number of them are very quick sketches of his family including his small children (he had seven). The curators of the exhibition likened them to Constable taking 'snapshots'. Smaller portraits are more likely to be ones which provided comfort when artist and family where separated for long periods.

Throughout the exhibition, I found it particularly fascinating to compare the quick and sketchy work to the more developed and refined portraits.

Included in the exhibition are paintings of where he used to live (eg at 2 Lower Terrace, Hampstead.) It's clear to see that he faced a problem many artists have when looking for somewhere to paint when they have a number of small children and also love cats!
I have sundry small works going on - for which purpose I have cleared a small shed in the garden which held coals, mops and brooms that is literally a coal-hole and have made it into a workshop and place of refuge.
Mature portraits The last section of the exhibition includes portraits done as commissions. I learned from the curators of the exhibition that it wasn't until the middle of the eighteenth century that the commissioning of portraits expanded beyond the aristocracy. Middle class people could now afford to commission portraits.
Constable painted clergymen and their wives, landed gentry, lawyers and doctors: a world parallel to that of his almost exact contemporary, Jane Austen.
I found these to be incredibly good. Maybe because they were done by a mature painter who is happy painting lace in a sketchy - but very effective - manner. I'd say they are most like the mature landscape paintings in terms of confidence in how he handles paint - and they also look like real people!

Martin Gayford (Co-curator) giving an interview to German television

The exhibition has been co-curated by two authorities on Constable and his work
  • Martin Gayford (pictured right doing a TV interview) who is a writer and critic and whose book Constable in Love has just been published.
  • Anne Lyles the Tate Curator who curated the wonderful exhibition of Constable: The Great Landscapes at Tate Britain in 2006 (this was the one that included the 'six-footers).
The exhibition opened last week and continues until 14th June in the Porter Gallery at the National Portrait Gallery in London. It then moves to Compton verney in Warwickshire 27 June - 6 September 2009. Admission is £5. I've included links to some of the other reviews below.

This is not an exhibition of great portraiture. Rather it is a picture of a great artist's career behind the landscapes and the six footers. It's an exhibition of
  • the ways in which every artist finds ways to satisfy parents about their aspirations and capacity for earning a decent income,
  • the family portraits you paint when learning how to be a portrait artist
  • the early commissions - which can be a bit hit and miss
  • of the way portrait painting becomes incredibly important as a way of recording the faces of your loved ones and the lives of your children as they grow up
  • how portrait painting on commission becomes incredibly important for generating income when you've got a lot of mouths to feed
  • and how an artist's painting matures over the course of his career.
Don't go to see the portraits - go to see his life!



  1. Gayford is the author of the Six Weeks in Arles Yellow House book regarding van Gogh and Gauguin. A very well written and researched book.

  2. I always enjoy seeing the path or proces of an artist instead of only the "master pieces" - I learn much more from this!

  3. Thanks for the cogent summary of what looks to be an intimate and interesting show!

  4. I love the quote where he says his studio is a workshop and place of refuge. Refuge is exactly what it feels like when I can find the time to escape into my studio.


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