John Constable (English, 1776–1837)
Oil on canvas
29 3/4 x 24 3/4 in. (75.6 x 62.9 cm)
Gift of George A. Hearn, 1906 (06.1272)
In 1816, John Constable married Maria Elizabeth Bicknell (1788–1828). Their first child, John Charles, was born the following year and, notwithstanding Maria's delicate health, they had six more children. As the pressure to support a growing family increased, Constable made an effort to develop a practice as a portraitist and in 1817–1818 he took on seven commissions in close succession. Although he never fully embraced portraiture, for a decade it was a particularly remunerative part of his practice, and his figures, like his landscapes, were freshly observed and honestly rendered. One of his finest is that of Mrs. Pulham.
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 acknowledged receipt of his wife's portrait and referred to it as "the Compliment which you have so handsomely bestowed on her." Mrs. Pulham is seated, fully frontal, with her head turned slightly toward the source of light at her right. Her face is truthfully rendered, to judge by her double chin, the modeling smooth, the tones blended, and the strokes disguised. Dressed in elaborate street clothes, the sitter was thought at one point to be wearing a costume of circa 1830 until it was realized that her substantial bosom had been mistaken for puff-sleeves. Her husband, a friend and patron of Constable's, acquired several landscapes from the artist and may have commissioned, as a pendant to this one, a portrait of himself, which has since disappeared.