John Constable: Romantic Artist

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Before Constable, the countryside was not considered to be an acceptable subject for serious painters.

Where landscape painting existed, it consisted of idealised greenery, trees and rock formations, mythical figures from classical legends posing in front of it.

Constable was part of a new movement in art called, Romanticism.  Started by the English poets Wordsworth and Coleridge.  this new Romantic movement:

  • focussed on the beauties of nature
  • exalted emotion over reason
  • rejected industrialism
  • emphasised colour as the life and soul of its paintings
  • made the countryside and country people its subject-matter

Inspiration

Inspired by the work and working methods of Thomas Gainsborough, Constable painted what he saw from his observations of real life. Working in the open air, he made hundreds of sketches of  fields, waterways, changing skies and the effects of light on moving water. By including ordinary people going about their working lives within the Suffolk countryside, John Constable became a revolutionary, changing landscape painting forever. Constable spent his summers sketching the countryside and returned to his London studio to execute his final work in oil.  His talent lay in his ability to:

  • capture natural light in paint – particularly in his representation of flowing water and wind blowing through trees
  • paint cloud formation and sunlight accurately and expertly
  • experiment with oil-painting techniques (later taken up by Monet and the French Impressionists)

The sound of water escaping from mill dams, willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts and brickwork, I love such things. These scenes made me a painter.” (extract from a letter written in 1821 by John Constable to his friend and confidante, Archdeacon John Fisher).

Unsaleable

Constable’s work did not sell.  The art establishment considered his work to be dull in subject matter and too highly coloured in execution. The naturalistic freshness of his art proved too radical for most collectors and his reputation was further diminished by harsh reviews in London periodicals and magazines. As a result he was financially dependent on commissions for portraits (he was an accomplished portrait painter), money from his family and the patronage of a few people such as Bishop John Fisher, Robert Vernon and John Sheepshanks.

The Haywain

Although The Haywain (see 5th image above) has become Constable’s best loved and most famous work, it was considered to be unremarkable when it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy.

  • 1821 - Exhibited at the Royal Academy and not sold. Contemporary French artist Theodore Gericault visits the exhibition and is stunned by Constable's painting
  • 1822 - Shown at the British Institution where French art dealer, John Arrowsmith offers to buy it for £70. Constable does not accept but subsequently they agree that Arrowsmith should take three pictures, Haywain, View on the Stour Near Dedham and Yarmouth Jetty for £250
  • 1824 - Shown at Paris Salon and awarded the King Charles X Gold Medal for Art*

Following the success of The Haywain in France, the art establishment started to take notice of John Constable and his work started to sell.

Constable's Famous Paintings

Throughout his life and regardless of any appreciation, Constable’s output was prolific. He painted seascapes in Brighton, and landscapes in Sussex, Essex, Hampstead, Petworth, Chichester, Arundel and Salisbury as well as many beautiful portraits but his most famous paintings are:

  • Boat Building (1814) - 2nd image above
  • The Mill Stream (1814) - 3rd image above
  • Flatford Mill, Scene on a Navigable River (1816-17) 4th image above
  • The Haywain (1821) - 5th image above
  • Opening of Waterloo Bridge (1817) 1832 - 6th image above

Other paintings include:

Rivalry with JMW Turner

JMW Turner was an instant success as a painter whereas Constable's work was much slower to achieve notice. Constable was only a year older than JMW Turner but while Turner enjoyed immediate and sustained success, Constable suffered rejection at the hands of the art establishment for most of his life. On first meeting, Constable expressed some reservations about Turner:

  • “I was a good deal entertained with Turner. I always expected to find him as I did - he is uncouth but has a wonderful range of mind” (extract from a letter written in 1813 by John Constable to Maria Bicknell).

In time, Constable recognised his rival’s genius and grew to admire him:

  • “Nothing can touch him, he is in the clouds” and “Turner has some golden visions, but still they are art, and one could live and die with such pictures” (extract from John Constable's writing about Turner's paintings that appeared in Royal Academy Exhibition of 1828).

Constable's importance

Constable's importance lies in his ability to make significant art out of common-place subjects. Because he worked from nature, he developed a style that caught quickly-changing atmospheric effects - the glint of sun on water or the sun breaking through the rain clouds to light up a patch of meadow. His freshness of approach and innovatory brushwork, together with his observation of light and landscape, were to provide inspiration for Delacroix and have a very significant influence on the later impressionists

Today, and in retrospect, it is difficult to fully appreciate the revolutionary nature of Constable's work at a time when landscape was regarded by the art world as merely a background to a painting and not a fit subject for painting by itself.

*The Haywain  after its success in France, in 1824

Constable's work immediately became more widely appreciated:

1825 - The Times praises Constable as “the first landscape painter of the day”
1828 - The Royal Academy admits Constable as a full member – aged 52
1838 - The Haywain is sold to Edmund Higginson and brought to England by art dealer, DT White who sells it to a Mr Young
1846 - The Haywain is sold at Christies by Thomas Rought for £378
1866 - The Haywain is sold by Christies to Henry Vaughan for £1,365
1866 - The Haywain is given to the National Gallery by Henry Vaughan