John Constable (11 June 1776 – 31 March 1837) was an English
Romantic painter. Born in Suffolk, he is known principally for his landscape
paintings of Dedham Vale, the area surrounding his home—now known as
"Constable Country"—which he invested with an intensity of affection. "I
should paint my own places best", he wrote to his friend John Fisher in 1821,
"painting is but another word for feeling".
His most famous paintings include Dedham Vale of 1802 and The Hay Wain of
1821. Although his paintings are now among the most popular and valuable in
British art, he was never financially successful and did not become a member
of the establishment until he was elected to the Royal Academy at the age of
52. He sold more paintings in France than in his native England.
John Constable was born in East Bergholt, a village on the River Stour in
Suffolk, to Golding and Ann Constable. His father was a wealthy corn merchant,
owner of Flatford Mill in East Bergholt and, later, Dedham Mill. Golding
Constable also owned his own small ship, The Telegraph, which he moored at
Mistley on the Stour estuary and used to transport corn to London. Although
Constable was his parents' second son, his older brother was mentally
handicapped and so John was expected to succeed his father in the business,
and after a brief period at a boarding school in Lavenham, he was enrolled in
a day school in Dedham. Constable worked in the corn business after leaving
school, but his younger brother Abram eventually took over the running of the
In his youth, Constable embarked on amateur sketching trips in the surrounding
Suffolk countryside that was to become the subject of a large proportion of
his art. These scenes, in his own words, "made me a painter, and I am
grateful"; "the sound of water escaping from mill dams etc., willows, old
rotten planks, slimy posts, and brickwork, I love such things." He was
introduced to George Beaumont, a collector, who showed him his prized Hagar
and the Angel by Claude Lorrain, which inspired Constable. Later, while
visiting relatives in Middlesex, he was introduced to the professional artist
John Thomas Smith, who advised him on painting but also urged him to remain in
his father's business rather than take up art professionally.
Constable's Dedham Vale of 1802
In 1799, Constable persuaded his father to let him pursue art, and Golding
even granted him a small allowance. Entering the Royal Academy Schools as a
probationer, he attended life classes and anatomical dissections as well as
studying and copying Old Masters. Among works that particularly inspired him
during this period were paintings by Thomas Gainsborough, Claude Lorrain,
Peter Paul Rubens, Annibale Carracci and Jacob van Ruisdael. He also read
widely among poetry and sermons, and later proved a notably articulate artist.
By 1803, he was exhibiting paintings at the Royal Academy.
In 1802 he refused the position of drawing master at Great Marlow Military
College, a move which Benjamin West (then master of the RA) counselled would
mean the end of his career. In that year, Constable wrote a letter to John
Dunthorne in which he spelled out his determination to become a professional
For the last two years I have been running after pictures, and seeking
the truth at second hand. I have not endeavoured to represent nature with
the same elevation of mind with which I set out, but have rather tried to
make my performances look like the work of other men…There is room enough
for a natural painter. The great vice of the present day is bravura, an
attempt to do something beyond the truth.
His early style has many of the qualities associated with his mature work,
including a freshness of light, colour and touch, and reveals the
compositional influence of the Old Masters he had studied, notably of Claude
Lorrain. Constable's usual
subjects, scenes of ordinary daily life, were unfashionable in an age that
looked for more romantic visions of wild landscapes and ruins. He did,
however, make occasional trips further afield. For example, in 1803 he spent
almost a month aboard the East Indiaman ship Coutts as it visited
south-east coastal ports, and in 1806 he undertook a two-month tour of the
Lake District. But he told his friend and biographer Charles Leslie that the
solitude of the mountains oppressed his spirits; Leslie went on to write:
His nature was peculiarly social and could not feel satisfied with
scenery, however grand in itself, that did not abound in human
associations. He required villages, churches, farmhouses and cottages.
In order to make ends meet, Constable took up portraiture, which he found
dull work—though he executed many fine portraits. He also painted occasional
religious pictures, but according to John Walker, "Constable's incapacity as a
religious painter cannot be overstated."
Constable adopted a routine of spending the winter in London and painting
at East Bergholt in the summer. And in 1811 he first visited John Fisher and
his family in Salisbury, a city whose cathedral and surrounding landscape were
to inspire some of his greatest paintings.
Marriage and maturity
Maria Bicknell, painted by Constable in 1816
From 1809 onwards, his childhood friendship with Maria Bicknell developed
into a deep, mutual love. But their engagement in 1816 was opposed by Maria's
grandfather, Dr Rhudde, rector of East Bergholt, who considered the Constables
his social inferiors and threatened Maria with disinheritance.
Maria's father, Charles Bicknell, a solicitor, was reluctant to see Maria
throw away this inheritance, and Maria herself pointed out that a penniless
marriage would detract from any chances John had of making a career in
Golding and Ann Constable, while approving the match, held out no prospect
of supporting the marriage until Constable was financially secure; but they
died in quick succession, and Constable inherited a fifth share in the family
Constable's Weymouth Bay, c. 1816
John and Maria's marriage in October 1816 was followed by a honeymoon tour
of the south coast, where the sea at Weymouth and Brighton stimulated
Constable to develop new techniques of brilliant colour and vivacious
brushwork. At the same time, a greater emotional range began to register in
Although he had scraped an income from painting, it was not until 1819 that
Constable sold his first important canvas, The White Horse, which led
to a series of "six footers", as he called his large-scale paintings.
He was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy that year, and in 1821 he
showed The Hay Wain (a view from Flatford Mill) at the Academy's
exhibition. Théodore Géricault saw it on a visit to London and was soon
praising Constable in Paris, where a dealer, John Arrowsmith, bought four
paintings, including The Hay Wain, which was exhibited at the Paris
Salon of 1824, winning a gold medal.
Of Constable's colour, Delacroix wrote in his journal: "What he says here
about the green of his meadows can be applied to every tone". Delacroix
repainted the background of his 1824 Massacre de Scio after seeing the
Constables at Arrowsmith's Gallery, which he said had done him a great deal of
In his lifetime Constable was to sell only twenty paintings in England, but
in France he sold more than twenty in just a few years. Despite this, he
refused all invitations to travel internationally to promote his work, writing
to Francis Darby: "I would rather be a poor man [in England] than a rich man
In 1825, perhaps due partly to the worry of his wife's ill-health, the
uncongeniality of living in Brighton ("Piccadilly by the Seaside" and
the pressure of numerous outstanding commissions, he quarrelled with
Arrowsmith and lost his French outlet.
After the birth of her seventh child in January 1828, Maria fell ill and
died of tuberculosis that November at the age of forty-one. Intensely
saddened, Constable wrote to his brother Golding, "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".
Thereafter, he always dressed in black and was, according to Leslie, "a
prey to melancholy and anxious thoughts". He cared for his seven children
alone for the rest of his life.
Constable's The Hay Wain of 1821
Shortly before her death, Maria's father had died, leaving her £20,000.
Constable speculated disastrously with this money, paying for the engraving of
mezzotints of some of his landscapes in preparation for a publication. He
was hesitant and indecisive, nearly fell out with his engraver, and when the
folios were published, could not interest enough subscribers. Constable
collaborated closely with the talented
David Lucas on some 40 prints after his landscapes, one of which went through
13 proof stages, corrected by Constable in pencil and paint. Constable said,
"Lucas showed me to the public without my faults", but the venture was not a
He was elected to the
Royal Academy in February 1829, at the age of 52, and in 1831 was
appointed Visitor at the Royal Academy, where he seems to have been popular
with the students.
He also began to deliver public lectures on the history of landscape
painting, which were attended by distinguished audiences. In a series of such
lectures at the Royal Institution, Constable proposed a threefold thesis:
firstly, landscape painting is scientific as well as poetic; secondly, the
imagination cannot alone produce art to bear comparison with reality; and
thirdly, no great painter was ever self-taught.
He also later spoke against the new Gothic Revival movement, which he
considered mere "imitation".
In 1835, his last lecture to the students of the RA, in which he praised
Raphael and called the R.A. the "cradle of British art", was "cheered most
heartily". He died on the night of the 31st March, apparently from
indigestion, and was buried with Maria in the graveyard of St
John-at-Hampstead, Hampstead. (His children John Charles Constable and Charles
Golding Constable are also buried in this family tomb.)
Constable's The Cornfield of 1826
Constable quietly rebelled against the artistic culture that taught artists
to use their imagination to compose their pictures rather than nature itself.
He told Leslie, "When I sit down to make a sketch from nature, the first thing
I try to do is to forget that I have ever seen a picture"
Although Constable produced paintings throughout his life for the
"finished" picture market of patrons and R.A. exhibitions, constant
refreshment in the form of on-the-spot studies was essential to his working
method, and he never satisfied himself with following a formula. "The world is
wide," he wrote, "no two days are alike, nor even two hours; neither were
there ever two leaves of a tree alike since the creation of all the world; and
the genuine productions of art, like those of nature, are all distinct from
Constable painted many full-scale preliminary sketches of his landscapes in
order to test the composition in advance of finished pictures. These large
sketches, with their free and vigorous brushwork, were revolutionary at the
time, and they continue to interest artists, scholars and the general public.
The oil sketches of The Leaping Horse and The Hay Wain, for
example, convey a vigour and expressiveness missing from Constable's finished
paintings of the same subjects. Possibly more than any other aspect of
Constable's work, the oil sketches reveal him in retrospect to have been an
avant-garde painter, one who demonstrated that landscape painting could be
taken in a totally new direction.
Constable's watercolours were also remarkably free for their time: the
almost mystical Stonehenge, 1835, with its double rainbow, is often
considered to be one of the greatest watercolours ever painted. When he
exhibited it in 1836, Constable appended a text to the title: "The mysterious
monument of Stonehenge, standing remote on a bare and boundless heath, as much
unconnected with the events of past ages as it is with the uses of the
present, carries you back beyond all historical records into the obscurity of
a totally unknown period."
In addition to the full-scale oil sketches, Constable completed numerous
observational studies of landscapes and clouds, determined to become more
scientific in his recording of atmospheric conditions. The power of his
physical effects was sometimes apparent even in the full-scale paintings which
he exhibited in London; The Chain Pier, 1827, for example, prompted a
critic to write: "the atmosphere possesses a characteristic humidity about it,
that almost imparts the wish for an umbrella".
Constable's Seascape Study with Rain Cloud c.1824
The sketches themselves were the first ever done in oils directly from the
subject in the open air. To convey the effects of light and movement,
Constable used broken brushstrokes, often in small touches, which he scumbled
over lighter passages, creating an impression of sparkling light enveloping
the entire landscape. One of the most expressionistic and powerful of all his
studies is Seascape Study with Rain Cloud, painted in around 1824 at
Brighton, which captures with slashing dark brushstrokes the immediacy of an
exploding cumulus shower at sea. Constable also became interested in painting
rainbow effects, for example in Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows,
1831, and in Cottage at East Bergholt, 1833.
To the sky studies he added notes, often on the back of the sketches, of
the prevailing weather conditions, direction of light, and time of day,
believing that the sky was "the key note, the standard of scale, and the chief
organ of sentiment" in a landscape painting. In this habit he is known to have
been influenced by the pioneering work of the meteorologist Luke Howard on the
classification of clouds; Constable's annotations of his own copy of
Researches About Atmospheric Phaenomena by Thomas Forster show him to have
been fully abreast of meteorological terminology.
"I have done a good deal of skying", Constable wrote to Fisher
on 23 October 1821; "I am determined to conquer all difficulties, and that
most arduous one among the rest".
Constable once wrote in a letter to Leslie, "My limited and abstracted art
is to be found under every hedge, and in every lane, and therefore nobody
thinks it worth picking up". He could never have imagined how influential his
honest techniques would turn out to be. Constable's art inspired not only
contemporaries like Géricault and Delacroix, but the Barbizon School, and the
French impressionists of the late nineteenth century.
Salisbury Cathedral by John Constable, ca. 1825. As a
gesture of appreciation for
John Fisher, the
Bishop of Salisbury, who commissioned this painting, Constable
included the Bishop and his wife in the canvas. Their figures can be
seen at the bottom left of the painting, behind the fence and under the
shade of the trees.
- Bailey, Anthony
(2007), John Constable: A Kingdom of His Own, London: Vintage,
ISBN 9781844138333 .
Freda (1975), John Constable, Lavenham: Terence Dalton,
ISBN 0900963549 .
Malcolm (1986), Constable, Oxford: Phaidon,
ISBN 0714823503 .
Fleming-Williams, Ian (1976), Constable: Landscape Watercolours &
Drawings, London: Tate,
ISBN 0905005104 .
Fleming-Williams, Ian & Parris, Leslie, The Discovery of Constable,
London: Hamish Hamilton,
ISBN 0241112486 .
- Fraser, John
Lloyd (1976), John Constable: 1776–1837, Newton Abbot, UK: Readers
ISBN 0091255406 .
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(1980), The Great Book of French Impressionism, New York: Abbeville
ISBN 0896591514 .
- Leslie, C. R.
(1995), Mayne, Jonathan, ed., Memoirs of the Life of John Constable,
ISBN 0714833606 .
- Mayor, A. Hyatt
(1980), Prints & People: A Social History of Printed Pictures,
Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press,
ISBN 0691003262 .
Ronald (1998), John Constable: The Man and His Art, London: V&A,
ISBN 185177243X .
Parris, Leslie & Fleming-Williams, Ian (1991), Constable, London:
ISBN 1854370707 .
Parris, Leslie & Fleming-Williams, Ian (1982), Lionel Constable,
ISBN 0905005384 .
Parris, Leslie; Fleming-Williams, Ian & Shields, Conal (1976), Constable:
Paintings, Watercolours & Drawings, London: Tate Gallery,
ISBN 0905005155 .
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(1964), John Constable, London: Blandford,
Graham (1976), Constable: The Natural Painter, St Albans, UK:
ISBN 0586044019 .
Michael (1987), Constable, London: Thames and Hudson,
ISBN 0500202117 .
Michael (1983), Constable: The Painter and His Landscape, New Haven,
CT.: Yale University Press,
ISBN 0300030142 .
Alastair & Brooks, Attfield (1976), Constable and His Country,
ISBN 0236400118 .
John (1986), Constable, London: Phaidon,
ISBN 9780714827544 .
- Thornes, John
E. (1999), John Constable's Skies, Birmingham: University of
ISBN 1902459024 .
- Walker, John
(1979), Constable, London: Thames and Hudson,
ISBN 0500091331 .
William (2002), John Constable, London: Tate,
ISBN 1854374346 .
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