Art History  •  Artworks under the lens

Salisbury Cathedral From the Meadows and The Death of Maria Constable

John Constable believed that “painting should be another word for feeling”, and this is clearly evident in his 1831 artwork Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows. The last of Constable’s “six-footer series”, the painting portrays Constable’s emotional turmoil following the death of his wife, and serves as a reflection of the political and religious themes of the period, specifically the impact of the Catholic Emancipation Act. Singulart will also examine the inclusion of the rainbow in the landscape painting, a deviation from Constable’s realistic depiction of the skies and an element that has fascinated art historians and meteorologists. 

John Constable and Maria Bricknell 

John Constable, Maria Constable with Two of her Children, 1820 John Constable. Image via The Tate
John Constable, Maria Constable with Two of her Children, 1820 John Constable. Image via The Tate

The love story between Constable and his wife Maria Bricknell was arduous. Meeting for the first time as children, Constable proposed to Maria in 1809. However, Maria’s grandfather forbade the marriage, believing that the Constable family was socially inferior and that Constable would not be able to support a family on his meager income. Constable’s father followed suit and did not allow the couple to meet, so a secret correspondence was carried out by Constable and Maria for seven years until the death of Constable’s father in 1816. 

At this point, the couple were married. Although Maria was disinherited by her grandfather, her father provided the couple with an allowance of £50 a year. During their twelve years together, Constable and Bricknell had seven children. Sadly, the year Maria gave birth to their last child, she contracted tuberculosis and passed away, leaving Constable bereft. He wrote “…hourly do I feel the loss of my departed angel – God only knows how my children will be brought up… the face of the World is totally changed to me.”

Following Maria’s death, Constable was invited to stay in Salisbury by his friend John Fisher. Fisher initially proposed that Constable paint the Salisbury as a distraction from his grief, writing, “I am quite sure that the ‘church under a cloud’ is the best subject you can take… It will be an amazing advantage to go every day and look afresh at your material drawn from nature itself.”

Political Themes in Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows

 John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, 1831. Image via The Tate
John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, 1831. Image via The Tate

Constable was a great supporter of the Anglican Church, and it has been suggested that the violent, blustery sky evident in Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows alluded to Constable’s reaction to the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. This act allowed Catholics to sit in Parliament, and was heavily derided by both Constable and Fisher, who believed in the partnership of Church and State. We can see from the painting just how important Constable’s religion was to him; the spire of the cathedral is positioned in the eye of the storm, the lightest part of the sky. The cathedral stands in the center of an oval shape suggested by the rainbow, wagon and river. It has been suggested that the placement of the cathedral, connecting the city and countryside, portrays Constable’s belief in the church as an important factor in unifying society. 

The turbulence portrayed in Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows could also be referring to the electoral reform happening during this time period. Industrial towns, such as Birmingham and Manchester, had no MPs to represent them until the introduction of the Reform Act. Constable viewed the passing of this act as a “tremendous attack on the Constitution of this country”, and his views were likely influenced by Fisher, who worried that the act would limit the Church’s power. We can see the area to the outskirts of Salisbury is portrayed in a rotting, desolate state, perhaps showing Constable’s visions of the future after the reform. 

The Rainbow Connection

While Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows does have a fair amount of doom and gloom, there are elements of brightness and hope evident in the piece. The inclusion of the rainbow has particularly interested art critics and historians. Constable used considerable artistic liberties in his rendition of the rainbow, a notable departure from his painstakingly accurate depictions of the skies. Elements in the painting, such as the way that the sunlight hits the elm tree in the foreground, suggest that it would have been impossible for a rainbow to have actually appeared while Constable was completing the piece. 

It is believed that Constable did not originally include the rainbow in Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, with historians estimating that it was added two or three years after the piece was first exhibited in 1831. The scientific accuracy with which Constable painted the rainbow means that it can be dated to a specific day and time, and the date the rainbow would have appeared in Salisbury was the afternoon of August 25, 1832 – the date of John Fisher’s death. The end of the rainbow touches Fisher’s house. It is theorized that the rainbow was later added by Constable as an homage to his Fisher and to signify the importance of his friendship. Constable would never return to Salisbury after Fisher’s death. 
The rainbow can also be seen as a symbol of hope and optimism following the bleak period of Constable’s life, and in Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows the cathedral appears to be protected by the arc of the rainbow. This could suggest Constable’s optimism concerned not only his personal life, but a hopeful view of the future of the Church and its place in society.

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