Oil painting of The Haywain by John Constable 1832 - National Gallery

The Haywain by John Constable 1821 - National Gallery

Breaking the mould

As a student at the Royal Academy John Constable did what all students do – copy the work of the great artists who had preceded him. However, after about two years he decided that too much art was based on other people’s art and what he wanted to do was base it on life – “for these two years I have been running after pictures and seeking the truth second hand”.  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. Although today we think of Constable as being very traditional, in fact he broke away from the traditional thinking on art at that time. By including ordinary people going about their working lives within the Suffolk countryside, John Constable became a revolutionary, changing landscape painting forever. 

Inspiration from Thomas Gainsborough

Oil painting of peasant driving a cow, calf and donkey across a stream
Crossing the Ford circa 1750 - National Trust
Painting of cottage door with girls and pigs by Thomas Gainsborough 1786 - Christchurch Mansions, Ipswich
Cottage door with girl & pigs 1786 - Colchester & Ipswich Museums
Painting of Holywells Park by Thomas Gainsborough 1748-50 - Colchester & Ipswich Museum Service
Holywells, Ipswich 1748/5 - Colchester & Ipswich Museums

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, Rev. John Fisher).  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)

Constable's landscapes

Status of landscape painting

The countryside was not an acceptable subject for serious painters in the early 19th Century, when John Constable decided to specialise in it. Where landscape painting existed in English painting, it consisted of idealised greenery, trees and rock formations, rural idylls with cows and peasants, 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 it spread to painting, sculpture, drama, novels  and music. 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 and made the countryside and country people its subject-matter.

Constable’s landscapes did not sell.  The art establishment considered his work to be dull in subject matter and too highly coloured . 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 White Horse 1819

After years of rejection the first large painting Constable sold was The White Horse painted in 1819. It shows a barge horse being poled across the River Stour at Flatford to the tow path on the opposite side of the River Stour. It now forms part of the Frick Collection.

Although The Haywain (first exhibited in  1832) 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.

The White Horse 1819 by John Constable

The White Horse 1819

The Haywain 1832 by John Constable

The Haywain - 1821

The Journey of the Haywain

  • 1821 – Exhibited at the Royal Academy and not sold. Contemporary French artist Theodore Gericault visited the exhibition and was stunned by Constable’s painting
  • 1822 – Shown at the British Institution where French art dealer, John Arrowsmith offered to buy it for £70. Constable did not accept to start with but subsequently agreed 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 – Constable did not travel to France to collect his award

Following the success of The Haywain in France, the art establishment started to take notice of John Constable and his work started to and become widely appreciated. In 1825 – The Times praised Constable as “the first landscape painter of the day”.  In 1828 – The Royal Academy admitted Constable as a full member, after many years of refusing him and he was by then aged 52. In 1838  The Haywain was sold to Edmund Higginson and brought to England by art dealer, DT White who sold it to a Mr Young. In 1846 – The Haywain was sold at Christies by Thomas Rought for £378. In 1866 – The Haywain was sold by Christies to Henry Vaughan for £1,365. In 1866 – The Haywain was given to the National Gallery by Henry Vaughan.

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. You can read about his most famous paintings by clicking on the links below that will take you to the galleries that now own them:

You can read up on other Constable paintings by clicking on the links below:

Why Constable is important

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. 

Rivalry with JMW Turner

JMW Turner was only a year older than Constable but his genius had been spotted as a teenager, selling his paintings in his father’s barber shop. He came from a rather tragic working family in London (his sister died in childhood and his mother died young in Bedlam) whereas Constable’s family was affluent. Turner attended the Royal Academy at the age of 14 whereas Constable was aged 23 . Turner was an instant success as a painter whereas Constable slogged on his landscapes for years rejected by the art establishment for most of his life.Turner was a full member of the Academy in his 20s but Constable was 54 before he was finally elected in by one vote.

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).