Patrons, either personal or institutional, financed many of the paintings made before the end of the eighteenth century, and continued to do so through into the twentieth. Their importance declined though, and by the time that the British landscape specialist John Constable (1776-1837) was training in the Royal Academy Schools at the end of the eighteenth century, few artists could live on the income derived from their patrons.
As RB Beckett wrote: “the lordly patron was being replaced by another type of buyer, one with fewer prejudices, who allowed the artist more initiative by being content to buy what he liked the look of when he saw it exhibited on the walls of a gallery.” The only problem with this was that contemporary art dealers didn’t exhibit contemporary paintings in their galleries, as they could make more money from dealing in old masters. Among the few exhibitions for contemporary work was the annual summer exhibition of the Royal Academy, which was far from ideal for the young artist looking for interest, attention or sales.
A century earlier Constable’s career would have been quite different. He’d have been indentured as an apprentice in the workshop of a master, then when he attained that rank himself he would have sought his own patrons and commissions. Constable was fortunate in that his father, a prosperous grain merchant, was able to fund his training in London. The aspiring artist was also introduced to the wealthy Sir George Beaumont, a Baronet who was a landowner at Great Dunmow in Essex, and an avid collector of paintings.
Beaumont wasn’t a patron of the arts by any means: as a collector, and a competent amateur painter himself, he bought old masters on the market rather than new paintings. He provided Constable with the opportunity to paint copies from his collection of Gainsborough, Claude Lorrain, Rubens, and Jacob van Ruisdael’s works, which later went on to become part of the core collection which formed the National Gallery in London when it was opened to the public in 1824. Beaumont was no lover of ‘modern’ painting either, and in 1815 his preface to an exhibition catalogue implied that contemporary British artists had a lot to learn from the old masters.
After about 1803, his training complete, Constable started to live a double artistic life. For much of the year he worked painting portraits in London to pay the bills, then in the summer he painted landscapes back at his family home at East Bergholt in Suffolk, works which he then exhibited at the Royal Academy the following year in the hope that they’d establish him as a landscape artist. But at the time landscapes were expected to be dramatic, romantic, and all ‘Salvatore Rosa’, which wasn’t his style at all.
In 1811, he visited John Fisher, the Bishop of Salisbury, who with his younger nephew became Constable’s most important patrons. Another less well-known patron was Wilbraham Tollemache (1739-1821), the sixth Earl of Dysart, also a patron of Reynolds and Gainsborough, for whom Constable painted family portraits and some copies.
In the late 1810s, Constable conceived the idea of a series of major landscape paintings about two metres high, his ‘six-footers’ which now include his most famous works. Their precursor is a view of Flatford Mill from 1816-7, and between 1819 and 1829 he painted a total of seven six-footers. Despite meticulous preparations in sketches and series of oil studies culminating in a full-sized oil sketch, in general they flopped when exhibited. Constable’s writings make it clear that the dominating desire in his art was to paint for his own satisfaction. He was clearly keen to see his work admired, and hoped that it might then be bought by someone who appreciated it.
In about 1820, Bishop John Fisher commissioned Constable to paint Salisbury Cathedral from the grounds of his Palace, and Constable started to prepare sketches and studies for that medium-sized painting, which was completed in 1823.
While Constable was working on that commission, he painted his third six-footer, which he completed in 1821. Originally titled Landscape: Noon when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy that year, it’s now better known as The Hay Wain, and is one of the most famous European landscape paintings.
At the Academy, The Hay Wain (1821) attracted far less attention than Constable had hoped, and failed to find a buyer. It did, though, attract attention from some of the French visitors, including the artist Théodore Géricault. The following year, Constable exhibited it at the British Insitution and asked 150 guineas (£157) for it, but it again failed to sell. One of those who saw it there was a French dealer named John Arrowsmith, who made Constable an offer of £70 which he declined.
In 1824, Arrowsmith visited Constable, knowing well of the painter’s growing reputation in France, and purchased The Hay Wain, A View on the Stour near Dedham (1822) and a small seascape of Yarmouth Jetty for a total of £250. For the Royal Academy exhibition that year, Constable had painted The Lock (1824), his fifth six-footer, which sold on the opening day for 150 guineas (£157).
Arrowsmith and another Paris dealer, Claude Schroth, followed up with further purchases from Constable, and by the summer of that year no less than twelve of his paintings were being shown in Paris galleries. Constable’s landscapes were now being admired by none other than Eugène Delacroix. Arrowsmith decided to enter Constable’s paintings for the Salon in Paris that year, which had been delayed until late August.
The Hay Wain proved one of two highlights of the Salon, and at its close the following January was awarded a gold medal, presented by King Charles X. Although still neglected in Britain, Constable’s reputation had been secured in France. Unfortunately, his market there vanished as rapidly as it had appeared: in late 1825, as the artist was working on more paintings for Arrowsmith, the two fell out, and shortly afterwards the dealer’s business went bankrupt.
Constable’s twenty or so paintings which had gone to France fared well in the market there. In 1836, The Hay Wain sold for 1,000 guineas (£1050), and didn’t return to Britain until about 1838.
An exception to this steady stream of ‘six-footers’ is a view down Fen Lane in East Bergholt, the subject of one of Constable’s early oil sketches. This painting also flopped: it was shown at the Royal Academy in 1826, then the Paris Salon of 1827-8, but remained unsold at the time of the artist’s death. It had though become sufficiently popular that it was purchased by public subscription, and has been in London’s National Gallery ever since.
Constable was finally awarded recognition by the Royal Academy in London in early 1829, when he was elected a full member.
Exhibited at the Academy shortly after his election, Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames – Morning after a Stormy Night (1829), his six-footer for that year, was more traditional and at last received more favourable reviews.
Constable was still battling with depression after the death of his wife when Archdeacon John Fisher (younger cousin of the Bishop, who had died in 1825) encouraged him to paint a larger and more ambitious view of Salisbury Cathedral from the nearby meadows on the banks of the River Nadder. He started preparatory work then, completing the finished painting for exhibition in the Royal Academy in 1831. Despite several showings, it too remained unsold when Constable died. A late oil sketch for this painting was sold by auction in 2015 for more than five million dollars.
I have been unable to find a shred of evidence that any of Constable’s patrons, clients or dealers had the slightest influence over his art. He appears to have stuck to his own personal conception for his landscapes throughout his entire career. Where his dealers, Arrowsmith and Schroth, certainly did have influence was in bringing Constable’s paintings to Paris.
There they coincided with the rapid growth in interest in landscape painting, with the brilliant paintings of the young Camille Corot, and the formation of the Barbizon School. Corot must have painted this view of Ville-d’Avray: Entrance to the Wood (c 1825) just before he departed for Italy, where he became the consummate plein air painter in oils, and the father of Impressionism.
Constable’s influence lives on in Renoir’s earliest substantial surviving landscape painting, Clearing in the Woods (1865), and on into the flourishing of the Impressionist landscape. In trying to profit from a nascent market, dealers do sometimes bring some good to art after all.
RB Beckett (ed) (1966) John Constable’s Correspondence vol 4: Patrons, Dealers and Fellow Artists, Suffolk Records Society.