Biography of John Constable, British Landscape Painter

john constable stratford mill
"Stratford Mill" (1820). Hulton Archive / Getty Images

John Constable (June 11, 1776—March 31, 1837) was one of the most prominent British landscape painters of the 1800s. Tied strongly to the Romantic Movement, he embraced the idea of painting directly from nature and introduced scientific detail to his work. He struggled to make ends meet during his lifetime, but today he is recognized as a vital link in the evolution toward impressionism.

Fast Facts: John Constable

  • Known For: Landscape painter and pioneer of naturalism, known for his scientific approach to painting and his large-scale "six footers"
  • Born: June 11, 1776 in East Bergholt, England
  • Parents: Golding and Ann Constable
  • Died: March 31, 1837 in London, England
  • Education: Royal Academy
  • Art Movement: Romanticism
  • Mediums: Oil painting and watercolors
  • Selected Works: "Dedham Vale" (1802), "The White Horse" (1819), "The Hay Wain" (1821)
  • Spouse: Maria Elizabeth Bicknell
  • Children: Seven: John Charles, Maria Louisa, Charles Golding, Isobel, Emma, Alfred, Lionel
  • Notable Quote: "Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature."

Early Life and Training

Born in East Bergholt, a small town on the River Stour in England, John Constable was the son of a wealthy corn trader. His father owned the ship that he used to send corn to London. The family expected John to succeed his father in running the merchant business.

Early in his life, Constable took sketching trips in the land around his home, which is now known as "Constable Country." The surrounding countryside would feature in the bulk of his later art. The young painter met artist John Thomas Smith, who encouraged him to stay in the family business and avoid working professionally as an artist. Constable didn't follow the advice.

Constable Self-Portrait
A chalk and pencil self-portrait by English landscape painter John Constable (1776 - 1837), circa 1800. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In 1790, John Constable convinced his father to allow him to embark on a career in art. He entered the Royal Academy Schools, where he studied and made copies of paintings by the old masters. He particularly admired the work of Thomas Gainsborough and Peter Paul Rubens.

Constable rejected the position of drawing master at Great Marlow Military College in 1802. Noted artist Benjamin West predicted the rejection would spell the end of Constable's painting career. The younger artist was steadfast and insisted that he wanted to be a professional painter, not an instructor.

In the first years of the 1800s, Constable painted views of Dedham Vale near his home. The works are not as mature as his later work, but the peaceful atmosphere he became known for is abundantly present.

In 1803, Constable began exhibiting his paintings at the Royal Academy. He did not make enough from his landscapes to live on, so he accepted portrait commissions to make ends meet. While the artist reportedly found portraiture dull, he executed many well-received portraits throughout his career.

john constable dedham church and vale
"Dedham Church and Vale" (1800). WikiArt / Public Domain

Rising Reputation

Following his marriage to Maria Bicknell in 1816, John Constable began experimenting with bright, more vibrant colors and livelier brushstrokes. The new techniques enhanced the emotional impact of his work. Unfortunately, he only managed to scrape by on income from sales of paintings.

In 1819, Constable finally experienced a breakthrough. He released "The White Horse," known as the first of his "six-footers," large-scale paintings measuring six-feet or more in length. The enthusiastic reception helped Constable in his election as an Associate of the Royal Academy. The 1821 exhibition of "The Hay Wain" further enhanced the artist's reputation.

john constable the white horse
"The White Horse" (1819). Geoffrey Clements / Getty Images

When "The Hay Wain" appeared at the Paris Salon of 1824, the French king awarded it a gold medal. The award began a period in which Constable was more successful in France than at home in England. However, he refused to cross the English Channel to promote his work in person, preferring to remain at home.

In 1828, after giving birth to the couple's seventh child, Constable's wife, Maria, contracted tuberculosis and died at age 41. Deeply saddened by the loss, Constable dressed in black. He invested a legacy from the death of Maria's father in his art. Unfortunately, the results were a financial failure, and the artist continued to scrape by.

The following year, the Royal Academy elected John Constable a full member. He began giving public lectures on landscape painting. He contended that his work contained elements of both science and poetry.

Constable Landscapes

At the time that John Constable created his most celebrated landscape paintings, the prevailing opinion in the art world was that artists should use their imagination in producing pictures. Painting directly from nature was considered a lesser pursuit.

Constable created many large, complete preliminary sketches for his paintings to work out the composition details. Art historians today value the sketches for what they say about the artist. Many of them are more emotional and aggressive than the finished paintings. They point in the direction of the innovations of impressionist and post-impressionist painters more than 50 years later.

The sky and textures of the clouds interested Constable when painting his landscapes. He insisted on being more scientific in his renderings of atmospheric details. Late in his career, he began painting rainbows. Occasionally, he included rainbows that would have been a physical impossibility based on the other sky conditions shown. The pioneering work of Luke Howard on classifying clouds had a significant impact on Constable's work.

john constable the hay wain
"The Hay Wain" (1821). Hulton Fine Art / Getty Images

Later Career

In the 1830s, John Constable switched from oil painting to watercolors. His final "six-footer" was the 1831 rendering of "Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows." The stormy weather and the accompanying rainbow in the picture were understood to represent the artist's turbulent emotional state. However, the rainbow is a symbol of hope for a brighter future.

In 1835, Constable painted "Stonehenge," one of his best-loved works. It is a watercolor that shows the monumental arrangement of ancient stones against the backdrop of a sky that features a double rainbow. The same year, he delivered his final lecture to the Royal Academy. He spoke with abundant praise about the old master Raphael and stated that the Royal Academy was "the cradle of British art."

Constable continued to work in his studio until his final days. He died of heart failure in his studio on March 31, 1837.

john constable stoke poges church
"Stoke Poges Church" (1833). Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Legacy

Along with William Turner, John Constable is recognized as one of the most notable landscape artists of the 19th century. In his lifetime, the art world didn't recognize him as one of the top talents, but his reputation remains solid today.

Constable is considered a pioneer of naturalism in painting in England. He was one of the first major artists to work directly from nature and apply his knowledge of light and naturalistic detail to Romantic subject matter. The emotional impact of many of his landscapes remains dramatic and idealized. Still, his studies resulted in rendering plants in such detail that a viewer may ascertain the specific species he painted.

Constable was a significant influence on the French leader of the Romantic Movement in painting, Eugene Delacroix. In journal entries written by Delacroix, he stated that he admired Constable's use of "broken color and flickering light."

The Barbizon School, French painters who focused on realism in landscape painting, felt the impact of Constable's innovations, too. Jean-Francois Millet and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot took the direct observation of nature even further in an evolution that led to impressionism.

john constable rainstorm over the sea
"Rainstorm Over the Sea" (1826). Hulton Fine Art / Getty Images

Sources

  • Evans, Mark. Constable's Skies. Thames & Hudson, 2018.
  • Evans, Mark. John Constable: The Making of a Master. Victoria & Albert Museum, 2014.