John Constable was a trailblazing landscape artist and indeed one of the most famous British artists of the 19th-century. Against the strong tides of conventional art, Constable’s small boat rowed with dedication to his commitment to promulgate the popularity of realist landscape painting. His legacy is a great vessel of work demonstrating his originality and spirited passion.
Constable grew up in the luscious Suffolk countryside in Dedham, East Bergholt. The son of a miller, Constable spent much of his youth admiring the beauty of his surroundings. ‘They made me a painter,’ he would write to a friend, a sentence indicative of Constable’s approach to his craft. Nature imbued his work, being both the foundation stone and the spire atop his pieces.
His interest was encouraged at school and his determination to paint landscape sealed when as a young man he was introduced to Sir George Beaumont. Beaumont allowed Constable to view a landscape work by French artist Claude Lorrain (1604-1682) and this made clear his life’s purpose. In 1799 he was off to London to study at the Royal Academy, determined and inspired.
Constable’s interest in landscape was unusual. Landscapes had never garnered much interest in Britain, and the ones that had were based on classical approaches to art where idealism and fantasy took precedence. The naturalist approach taken by landscape painters of the Dutch Golden Age was in the same vein as Constable’s style, but Constable added his own twist.
Whilst Constable educated himself on art practices, he stuck strong to his commitment. He wrote to a friend: ‘I shall endeavour to get a pure and unaffected representation of the scenes that may employ me… there is room enough for natural painture.’
Constable studied nature extensively, creating up to 200 sketches a year. His singular style began to develop as he used impasto to evoke the vivacity of his scenes and bright colours reflective of verdant vibrancy. The most important tenet of his work, chiaroscuro, meaning the play of light and shade, benefitted greatly from his studies. The many sketches he made allowed him to create an observational catalogue that he could refer to when creating his final pieces.
‘We see nothing until we truly understand it,’ Constable would write.
It is interesting to note that whilst an unadulterated view of nature was Constable’s objective, in practice this sometimes fell to the wayside. His most famous work, ‘The Hay Wain’ (1821), demonstrates the difficulties Constable faced in desiring to copy from nature whilst residing in London. It was necessary for him to remain living in the capital for business and exhibiting. Constable was also forced to paint portraits to ensure he had sufficient income to support his family. His wife Maria would birth seven children during their 12-year marriage. As a result, this affected his landscapes.
‘The Hay Wain’ is named for the cart which crosses through a shallow ford towards the fields beyond, the central focus of the work. In reality, the cart depicted is actually a wood cart, as Constable had to request someone send him a sketch of the transportation whilst he was stuck in the ‘big smoke.’ This is not a major inaccuracy, but a rather amusing one, nonetheless. Furthermore, Constable’s training and abundant artistic knowledge meant he understood the benefits of neat composition. This led him to placing objects in scenes to make them more balanced.
Despite these small hiccups, Constable remained loyal to the naturalist roots which had first inspired him. This tenacity would be needed when he began to exhibit his landscapes. He even apparently prayed before one of his earlier works that it would be received well. Unfortunately, divine intervention was unavailable, and the reception was vastly confused and unappreciative. ‘A nasty green thing,’ one of his works was called.
Constable tried and failed for many years to put himself and his works at the apex of British art, but time after time he failed. His applications for an associate membership were refused repeatedly, and his paintings sold poorly. His early years were marked by setbacks in reception, even as his style flourished.
Finally, in 1819, he was elected as an associate member of the Royal Academy, and into the 1820s his career began to take a turn. It was not a sharp turn towards greatness, however, but more the gentle manoeuvring of his rowboat as it continued to navigate choppy waters. The British press began to praise the ‘natural and ‘truthful’ aspects of his art, even as they remained baffled by his bold, unconventional style. Historians have noted this strange paradox in feeling towards Constable’s art in Britain. It casts a sharp contrast to his reception in France.
The French more than the British praised Constable’s originality and verve. When his work began to be exhibited in Paris in the 1820s, Constable became the recipient of rewards from the Paris Salons and esteem from Charles X. His works sold, and his popularity blossomed. ‘My works have made an epoch there,’ he told a friend. Constable’s naturalism would influence the French Barbizon school, and his love for painting outside and looser brushstrokes would influence the impressionists of the late 19th-century.
Perhaps it might have been better for Constable’s rowboat to move away from the choppy British waters and cross the channel for good, but Constable’s love was for the British countryside, and he was determined to make his mark in his home country. He also had a family to care for, and his wife’s weak health necessitated moves to both Hampstead and for a while to Brighton. These would allow Constable to undertake further studies of nature, most importantly of the sky and the sea. The sky in particular became a clear demonstration of Constable’s dedication to reflecting the celestial intangibility of nature as best he could in his tangible brushstrokes.
After the death of his beloved wife Maria in 1828, an existential panic consumed Constable and he realised he would have to ensure his artistic legacy in a broader sense than just the Academy. Mezzotint prints were increasingly popular at the time for disseminating art to wider audiences, and it was to these Constable turned his attention. Employing the skills of engraver David Lucas (1802-1881), Constable created ‘English Landscape,’ a book containing 22 mezzotint prints of his work.
Constable meticulously ensured every single print captured the essence of his original works, Lucas working tirelessly to deliver the final product. The sophisticated zeal of Constable’s work is not lost, and Lucas was a competent and highly skilled communicator of his style. Some historians have called ‘English Landscape’ Constable’s ‘apologia and manifesto.’ Published in parts throughout the 1830s, Constable’s tenacious dedication is incredible, even through his grief and his own growing ailments.
In the latter years of Constable’s life, he no longer faced the confusion and indignation of his early career, but he was not yet a legend and stalwart of British art. Upon his death in 1837, many of his works remained unsold, piled high in his home. A fearsome battle raged for primacy over Constable’s reputation. His good friend Charles Robert Leslie published a biography painting Constable as a painter on a journey of self-discovery which would in turn simultaneously influence British art. Others like the writer John Ruskin were much more dismissive.
Time and the maturing of Britain’s art sense, however, ensured that Constable finally got the recognition he deserved. His daughter Isobel donated a large number of his works into the safekeeping of the V&A, and they remain some of the most treasured works in their collection.
The progress Constable made throughout his life to ensure the promotion of landscapes to the top of the painting hierarchy was not a blazing bonfire but had slowly kindled for years, flames sure and steady. It had been constantly stoked and attended to by Constable as he kept his determination, experimenting with new styles of painting and finding new ways to disseminate his art. It is no surprise that his work now hangs in the National Gallery, or that Suffolk is more commonly known as ‘Constable Country.’
His love for the countryside now shapes our relationship to it.
Born in East Bergholt, Suffolk.
Began studies at the Royal Academy Schools.
Began exhibiting at the Royal Academy.
Married Maria Bicknell.
Elected as an associate member of the Royal Academy.
Moved to Hampstead.
Wife Maria died of tuberculosis.
Elected a member of the Royal Academy.
Elected a member of the Royal Institution and the Graphic Society.
Died in London.