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  • John Constable
    Jun 11, 1776 - Mar 31, 1837
  • A Winter Landscape with Figures on a Path, A Footbridge and Windmills Beyond - John Constable RA was an English landscape painter in the Romantic tradition. Born in Suffolk, he is known principally for revolutionising the genre of landscape painting with his pictures 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".
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A Winter Landscape with Figures on a Path, A Footbridge and Windmills Beyond
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  • A Winter Landscape with Figures on a Path, A Footbridge and Windmills Beyond

  • John Constable
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  • After Jacob Van Ruisdael

    In the fall of 1832, John Constable painted this remarkable copy of a winter landscape by Jacob van Ruisdael then in the collection of Sir Robert Peel but today in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (fig. 1). Known for his scrupulous copies of Old Master Paintings, Constable was instructed by Peel to add an element into his copy, so as to distinguish it from the original. Constable thus added a small dog in the lower left corner of his painting, an element he also introduced into his copy of a David Teniers landscape that he completed in 1823 for William Dodsworth, the verger of Salisbury Cathedral.

    Constable commenced on this work a few days after the death of his friend, John Fisher. On September 4th, Constable wrote to C.R. Leslie: "I cannot tell you how singularly this death has affected me...I shall pass this week at Hampstead to copy the winter piece [by Ruysdael] - for which indeed my mind seems in a fit state." This, together with the artist's lengthy inscription on the stretcher which references the passing of another life-long friend, John Dunthorne, less than two months later (fig. 2), helps to further illustrate how the specific subject of this wintry composition and the meticulous practice of copying served in some ways to soothe his heartache after the loss of two of his dearest friends.

    A champion of landscape painting throughout his career, Constable found inspiration in the landscapes of artists that preceded him, including those of Titian, Claude, Poussin, Rubens, and Jacob van Ruisdael, the latter with whom he found a great affinity, particularly in Ruisdael's ability to "envelop the most ordinary scenes in grandeur ". Constable looked at these artists' works, sometimes even copying them, as books from which much could be understood after a close and attentive reading. The present composition serves as a prime example that it is more than just a pure landscape, as described by Constable in his own words in an 1836 lecture at the British Institution on Dutch and Flemish landscape painting when he used his copy as an illustration:

    [Ruysdael’s] Picture represents an approaching thaw. The ground is covered in snow and the trees are still white; but there are two windmills near the center; the one has the sails furled, and is turned in the position from which the wind blew when the mill left off work; the other has the canvas on the pulls and is turned another way, which indicates a change in the wind. The clouds are opening in that direction, which appears by the glow in the sky to be the south...and this change will produce thaw before the morning. The concurrence of these circumstances shows Ruysdael understood what he was painting.

    It is of no surprise that Ruisdael's Winter Landscape, dated by Slive to the late 1660s, attracted Constable's attention, as it long received high praise from the seventeenth century onwards. Waagen, who would have seen the work in the collection of Peel around 1837-1839, remarked "The feeling of winter is here expressed with more truth than I have ever seen," while Valentiner in 1913 believed it to be "the finest winter landscape by the artist, unsurpassed by any painting of similar motive in Dutch art" .

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Other paintings by John Constable:

A View on the Stour Near Dedham
A View on the Stour Near Dedham
A Windmill near Brighton
A Windmill near Brighton
A Wooded Landscape with Cattle, Buildings to the Left
A Wooded Landscape with Cattle, Buildings to the Left
A Wooden Building with a Figure by a Fence
A Wooden Building with a Figure by a Fence
John ConstableJohn Constable (11 June 1776 – 31 March 1837) 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 in East Bergholt and, later, Dedham Mill. Golding Constable also owned his own small ship, The Telegraph, which he moored at Mistley on the Stour estuary and used to transport corn to London. 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, and after a brief period at a boarding school in Lavenham, he was enrolled in a day school in Dedham. Constable worked in 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) counselled 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 endeavoured 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, colour 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. He did, however, 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."