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
“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)
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.
1821 – Exhibited at the Royal Academy and not sold.
Contemporary French artist Theodore Gericault visited the Royal Academy exhibition and was stunned by Constable’s painting and returned to France singing the praises of John Constable to his artist friends
1822 – Shown at the British Institution where French art dealer, John Arrowsmith saw it and offered to buy it for £70.
Constable did not accept Arrowsmith’s offer to start with but subsequently agreed that in return for £250.00 Arrowsmith should take three pictures,
- View on the Stour Near Dedham and
- Yarmouth Jetty
In 1824 The Haywain was shown at Paris Salon and awarded the King Charles X Gold Medal for Art – Constable did not travel to France to collect his award
Constable called this painting Landscape Noon and this was its title when exhibited at the Royal Academy and in Paris. The reason for the original title is because he sketched the scene every day at noon. How it acquired the name Haywain is not clear although it is referred to by this name in a letter sent to John Constable by a friend John Fischer enquiring after his progress in completing it.
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.
- 1825 – The Times praised Constable as “the first landscape painter of the day”.
- 1828 – The Royal Academy admitted Constable as a full member, after many years of refusing him and he was by then aged 52.
- 1838 The Haywain was sold to Edmund Higginson and brought to England by art dealer, DT White who sold it to a Mr Young.
- 1846 – The Haywain was sold at Christies by Thomas Rought for £378.
- 1866 – The Haywain was sold by Christies to Henry Vaughan for £1,365.
- 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:
- Boat Building (1814) – Victoria and Albert
- The Mill Stream (1814) – Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service
- Flatford Mill, Scene on a Navigable River (1816-17) Tate Gallery
- The Haywain (1821) – National Gallery – watch Khan Academy Video for insights into this painting
- Opening of Waterloo Bridge (1817) 1832 – Tate Gallery
You can read up on other Constable paintings by clicking on the links below:
- The White Horse (1819) Frick Collection
- View on the Stour, near Dedham(1822) owned by Huntington Gallery – watch Khan Academy Video for insights into this painting
- The Leaping Horse (1825) Tate Gallery
- The Cornfield (1826) National Gallery
- The Lock (1826) sold to a private collector at Christies on 3 July 2012 for £22,442,250
- The Chain Pier (1826-7) Tate Gallery
- Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1832) Tate Gallery
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).