The sitter, an amateur portrait painter, was the wife of James Pulham, an attorney in Woodbridge, Suffolk. In a letter to Constable of April 30, 1818, Mr. Pulham referred to this painting as "the Compliment which you have so handsomely bestowed on her." Portraiture was a minor but remunerative part of Constable’s practice. This is one of his liveliest works, with varied brushwork and glinting highlights played off against the sitter’s matronly calm.
Frances Amys Pulham was an amateur portrait painter, the eldest daughter of William and Frances Amys of Woodbridge, Suffolk. In 1787 she married James Pulham, who moved that year from Sudbury to Woodbridge and for the rest of his life practiced there as a solicitor. It seems likely that Constable first met the Pulhams in the course of a visit to Woodbridge in 1815. Pulham became a patron and friend, and he eventually owned three Constable landscapes, including the view of Helmingham Dell painted in 1825–26 that belongs now to the John G. Johnston Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. On April 30, 1818, Pulham wrote to Constable in London to thank him for this picture: "The portrait arrived safe on Saturday last, and I cannot but express myself greatly obliged by your masterly execution of it. It will give Mrs. Pulham & myself much pleasure to have you, Mrs. Constable & your little one with us this Summer, when Mrs. P. will feel gratified in being able to return the Compliment which you have so handsomely bestowed on her."
It may well have been in the course of a visit to her son and daughter-in-law in London that Mrs. Pulham sat for Constable. She died at ninety on June 15, 1856, and so was painted aged about fifty. This is one of the artist’s most lively portraits, and while face painting may not have been of compelling interest to him, it was a particularly remunerative part of his practice in 1818. The canvas is similar to his half-length of Mrs. James Andrew (Tate, London) of that year. Each woman is seated, fully frontal, with her head turned slightly toward the source of light at her right. Their faces are honestly rendered, to judge by the sitters’ double chins, the modeling smooth, the tones blended, and the strokes disguised. By contrast, their clothes—Mrs. Andrew is dressed for home, Mrs. Pulham for the street—afforded Constable an opportunity to display the brilliance of his technique, especially in the highlights. In both cases, the handling of the drapery is broad, fluent, and more suggestive than descriptive.
[2012; adapted from Baetjer 2009]
James Pulham Sr., Oxford House,, Woodbridge, Suffolk (1818–d. 1830); the sitter, Mrs. James (Frances Amys) Pulham Sr., Woodbridge (1830–d. 1856); her son, James Brook Pulham, Woodbridge (1856–d. 1860); Mrs. James Brook (Maria Violet) Pulham, Woodbridge (1860–d. 1868); her executor, Captain Rolla Rouse, Melton, Suffolk (from 1868); George A. Hearn, New York (until 1906)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. "Paintings, Drawings and Prints by J. M. W. Turner, John Constable, R. P. Bonington," March 21–April 28, 1946, no. 142.
New York. Salander-O'Reilly Galleries. "John Constable, R.A. (1776–1837): Paintings, Drawings, Watercolors, Mezzotints," May 4–June 25, 1988, no. 39.
Paris. Grand Palais. "Constable: Le choix de Lucien Freud," October 7, 2002–January 13, 2003, no. 66.
London. National Portrait Gallery. "Constable Portraits: The Painter and His Circle," March 5–June 14, 2009, no. 32 (as "Mrs. James Pulham Snr. (c. 1766–1856)").
Compton Verney House Trust. "Constable Portraits: The Painter and His Circle," June 27–September 6, 2009, no. 32 (as "Mrs. James Pulham Snr. (c. 1766–1856)").
James Pulham Sr. Letter to John Constable. April 30, 1818, acknowledges receipt of this portrait [see Ref. Beckett 1966].
The George A. Hearn Gift to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in the City of New York in the Year MCMVI. New York, 1906, pp. xii, 150, ill. opp. p. 150, as Constable, Mrs. Pulham, noting that the artist used the palette knife freely.
"Recent Changes in the Galleries." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 1 (May 1906), p. 87.
Masters in Art: Constable 7 (1906), p. 41.
Elizabeth Luther Cary. "The Hearn Pictures in the Metropolitan Museum." International Studio 34 (April 1908), p. 68, "the brush work is broad [with] something of that breeziness which the painter achieved in his skies having entered into his portraiture".
P[ercy]. M[oore]. Turner. "Pictures of the English School in New York." Burlington Magazine 22 (February 1913), p. 270, mentions the portrait as on loan [sic] from Hearn.
C. H. Collins Baker. British Painting. London, 1933, p. 277.
Andrew Shirley, ed. Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, R.A. By C[harles]. R[obert]. Leslie. London, 1937, pp. lxxxii, 438, Shirley dates it about 1830 and identifies the sitter as the wife of Mr. Pulham of Woodbridge, a "Suffolk friend . . . for whom he painted several landscapes".
Andrew Shirley. "Constable as a Portrait Painter." Burlington Magazine 70 (June 1937), p. 273, pl. 2-D, dates it to the late 1820s or early 1830s.
W. G. Constable and H. P. Rossiter. An Exhibition of Paintings, Drawings, and Prints by J. M. W. Turner, John Constable, and R. P. Bonington. Exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Boston, 1946, p. 49, no. 142, note that Shirley dates it about 1830, but feel it "may well be a few years earlier".
Elsie G. Redstone. Letter to Josephine L. Allen. December 26, 1949, is inclined to think it represents Mrs. James Pulham Sr. rather than her daughter-in-law, Mrs. James Brook Pulham; notes that the latter, upon her death in 1868, bequeathed a portrait of Mrs. Pulham Sr. to Rolla Rouse of Melton (died 1887).
W. G. Constable. Letter to Josephine L. Allen. January 9, 1950, observes that it is close to Constable's portrait of Dr. Wingfield, which is signed and dated 1818, but dates it in the early 1820s because it is more loosely painted.
Mabel I. Redstone. Letter to Josephine L. Allen. September 8, 1954, encloses a transcript of the 1818 letter from James Pulham to Constable, acknowledging receipt of his wife's portrait.
R. B. Beckett, ed. John Constable's Correspondence. Vol. 4, Patrons, Dealers, and Fellow Artists. London, 1966, pp. 88–89, 94, ill. (frontispiece), as c. 1821 [sic]; publishes the 1818 letter, identifies the portrait referred to as ours, and supplies biographical information about the Pulhams.
Leslie Parris, Ian Fleming-Williams, and Conal Shields. Constable: Paintings, Watercolours & Drawings. Exh. cat., Tate Gallery. London, 1976, p. 105, no. 158, ill. p. 106, date it 1818.
Robert Hoozee. L'opera completa di Constable. Milan, 1979, p. 111, no. 250, ill.
Leslie Parris. The Tate Gallery Constable Collection: A Catalogue. London, 1981, p. 78, mentions it in connection with the portrait of Mrs. James Andrew of 1818.
Graham Reynolds. The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable. New Haven, 1984, vol. 1, p. 17, no. 18.8; vol. 2, colorpl. 35, dates it 1818 and calls it "one of Constable's most successful portraits".
Malcolm Cormack. Constable. Cambridge, 1986, p. 37, mentions its "direct liveliness and honest look," suggesting that the "sparkle of surface" may have been learned from Lawrence.
Anne Lyles inConstable: Le choix de Lucien Freud. Exh. cat., Grand Palais. Paris, 2002, pp. 132–33, no. 66, ill. (color).
Martin Gayford and Anne Lyles. Constable Portraits: The Painter and His Circle. Exh. cat., National Portrait Gallery. London, 2009, pp. 27, 29, 48, 52, 122, no. 32, ill. pp. 102, 123 (color, overall and detail), suggest that Constable may have painted a pendant portrait of the sitter's husband (present location unknown).
Hugh Belsey. "Constable Portraits." Burlington Magazine 151 (May 2009), pp. 331–32 n. 4, fig. 55 (color), calls it "Portrait of Mrs. James Pulham" and remarks that "judging from the pentimenti, it was a painting (or a sitter) that caused [Constable] difficulties and he went out of his way to satisfy".
Katharine Baetjer. British Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1575–1875. New York, 2009, pp. 240–41, no. 116, ill. (color).