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Charles Robert Leslie RA, Portrait of John Constable, R.A.

Portrait of John Constable, R.A., ca. 1830

Charles Robert Leslie RA (1794 - 1859)

RA Collection: Art

On free display in Collection Gallery

This intimate portrait is almost miniature in scale and was probably painted as a private memento of friendship. John Constable RA is captured looking thoughtful, facing three-quarters to the left, wearing a black tie and jacket with a white shirt.

Charles Leslie RA was a successful portrait painter but is today best known as Constable’s first biographer. Leslie, one of Constable’s closest friends, published Memoirs of the Life of John Constable six years after Constable’s death, which was based on correspondence between the two artists. They were friends from the mid 1820’s, with the first surviving letter from 1 September 1826, and they remained close until Constable’s death in 1837. A mezzotint of this painting engraved by David Lucas was used for the frontispiece for the first edition of the biography. The portrait has become the most enduring image of the landscape painter’s appearance, both because of its wide dissemination in Leslie’s book and because of Constable’s lack of interest in projecting a public persona through portraiture (Royal Academy, 2007). The painting remained in Constable’s family and was given to the Royal Academy by his daughter in 1886.

Michael Rosenthal wrote that Leslie’s biography “extended [Constable’s] reputation, laying out the fictional life of a sincere and dedicated artist struggling against ingenuity and incomprehension; it was Leslie’s loyalty to his friend that perhaps caused him to gloss over many of Constable’s less-appealing characteristics” (Rosenthal, 1998). Leslie wrote about Constable’s character in his Autobiographical Recollections: “He was opposed to all cant in art, to all that is merely specious and fashionable, and to all that is false in taste. He followed, and for his future fame he was right in following, his own feelings in the choice of subject and the mode of treatment. With great appearance of docility, he was an uncontrollable man. He said of himself, ‘If I were bound with chains I should break them, and with a single hair round me I should feel uncomfortable’” (Gayford and Lyles, 2009, p13).

Daniel Maclise RA, another friend of Constable, also produced a portrait of Constable around this time in pencil. He is depicted in similar dress, although it depicts Constable at work (National Portrait Gallery, NPG 1458). Before this, Constable hadn’t been depicted for over twenty years (Gayford and Lyles, 2009, p.152).

Related Works

David Lucas’ mezzotints of this portrait are found in the collections of the British Museum (1876,1209.144 and 1848,1209.4) and the National Portrait Gallery (NPG D1544).

A pencil portrait by Leslie was lithographed by R J Lane ARA for the second edition of his biography. A lithograph is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG D21958).

Daniel Maclise’s pencil portrait of Constable from c.1831 shows Constable at a similar date and in similar dress (National Portrait Gallery NPG 1458).

Further Reading

At Home: Portraits of Artists in the Royal Academy Collection, exh. guide, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2007

Michael Rosenthal, ‘John Constable’, 1998 in https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Constable#ref828331

Martin Gayford and Anne Lyles, Constable Portraits: The Painter and His Circle, exh. cat., National Portrait Gallery, London, 2009.

Stephen Hebron et al., The Solitude of the Mountain: Constable and the Lake District, exh. cat., The Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere, 2006.

Object details

Title
Portrait of John Constable, R.A.
Artist/designer
Date
ca. 1830
Object type
Painting
Medium
Oil on panel
Dimensions

182 mm x 137 mm x 9 mm

Collection
Royal Academy of Arts
Object number
03/681
Acquisition
Given by Isabel Constable 1886

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