John Constable, an English landscape artist, was born June 11, 1776. Constable was an almost exact contemporary of the other famous British landscape artist of the time, J.M.W. Turner. Interestingly, both are considered to be scientific artists, although of quite different types. Turner reflected the rise of physics and technology in the early 19th century, with his attempts to capture machines and speed and the energy of phenomena, as in his famous Rain, Steam and Speed in London’s National Gallery (see fourth image above). Constable, on the other hand, was a living expression of the deep interest in natural history that occupied so many minds in the same period. Constable has been often studied by geographers, as well as art historians, because he attempted (and succeeded) in capturing the essence of a place with an image rather than in words (in this case the vale of the River Stour, on the border between Essex and Suffolk in eastern England), creating an art of geography. In many ways, Constable is the artistic equivalent of the naturalist Gilbert White, who was the first to do truly local natural history, studying the birds, animals, and landscape of his native Selborne and producing that great classic, The Natural History of Selborne (1789). Constable did the same thing for his native towns of East Bergholt and Dedham, trying to depict their natural surroundings as they are, not as some vehicle for a great moral truth. The area of his focus, often called “Constable country”, is captured in such famous Constable paintings as Dedham Vale (1802, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; first image above) and the Hay-Wain (1821, at the National Gallery; second image). Here in Kansas City, we are fortunate to have a splendid Constable nearby, The Dell at Helmingham Park (1830), which hangs in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (third image).
J.M.W. Turner has now been celebrated in the recent biopic film, Mr. Turner (2014). We eagerly await its sequel, Mr. Constable.
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to firstname.lastname@example.org.