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United Kingdom 
John Constable (June 11, 1776, East Bergholt, Suffolk, England - March 31, 1837, London) - a major British landscape painter of the Romantic era. He is famous for his depictions of the English countryside, especially the valley of the River Stour. This area is now known as “Constable Country.”

Peculiar features of John Constable’s work. During a period when landscape was the dominant genre in British art, John Constable held a unique place among the landscape painters. Usually, he did not show the places that were widely popular with the public or other artists, but depicted the views with which he felt a personal connection. In addition, he was the only one among his fellow artists who widely practiced oil etudes in plain air.

In his landscapes, especially those of the late period, Constable showed natural phenomena with surprising accuracy, for example, the fleeting and vivid effects of a stormy sky. His paintings are a deep and long-term meditation on the rural life of Britain in an era of rapid socio-economic transformation.

Famous paintings of John Constable  Hay Wain, Wyvenhoe Park, Essex, White Horse, Salisbury Cathedral View from the MeadowHighgate View from Hampstead Hill

A miller from the province

“I associate my carefree childhood with everything that lies on the banks of the Staur; those scenes made me a painter,” John Constable confessed in a letter to John Fischer, Bishop of Salisbury. The future artist grew up on the farm of his father, a miller and corn trader, and from childhood he made amateur sketches of rural views in his native Suffolk County. “The sound of water escaping from mill dams etc., willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts, and brickwork, I love such things," he wrote.

However, the young man was originally prepared to be engaged not in painting, but in the mill business. Although he was the second son of his parents, his older brother was mentally disabled. Therefore, after a short training in a boarding house and graduation from day school, young John was assigned to the family business. This explains his slow progress in art in youth: a self-taught painter from the province entered the Royal Academy of Arts with the reluctant approval of his father already at a respectable age of 23.

At that time, historical painting was considered the most suitable subject for the students of the Academy. But Constable from the very beginning showed a special interest in the landscape, and during his studies he was most inspired by the work of Thomas Gainsborough, Claude Lorrain, Peter Paul RubensAnnibale Carracci and Jacob van Ruisdael.

Unfashionable daily routine

In 1802, he refused the position of drawing master at a newly established. His mentor Benjamin West counselled that would mean the end of his career. Constable spelled out his determination to become a professional landscape painter:
"For the last two years I have been running after pictures, and seeking the truth at second hand. I have not endeavoured to represent nature with the same elevation of mind with which I set out, but have rather tried to make my performances look like the work of other men... There is room enough for a natural painter. The great vice of the present day is bravura, an attempt to do something beyond the truth." In the same year, the young master exhibited his work for the first time at the Royal Academy.

In the first half of the decade, Constable gave preference to watercolors and graphics, having performed excellent work in these techniques (1, 2, 3). But his usual subjects - scenes from everyday life - were out of fashion in an era that romanticized pristine nature and picturesque ruins. Therefore, the views of the ports on the southeastern coast and the Lake District (1, 2) were ignored by the public at the exhibitions of 1807 and 1808.

Constable confessed to his friend and biographer Charles Leslie that the greatness and aloofness of the mountains depress his spirit. He later wrote: “His nature was peculiarly social and could not feel satisfied with scenery, however grand in itself, that did not abound in human associations. He required villages, churches, farmhouses and cottages."

In order to make ends meet, Constable took up portraiture, which he found dull work-though he executed many fine portraits (1, 2, 3). He also painted religious pictures (1, 2, 3), but according to an art critic, "Constable's incapacity as a religious painter cannot be overstated."

All-conquering love

During one of his visits to his native East Bergholt in 1809, the painter fell in love with Maria Bicknell whom he had met nine years earlier. However, the girl's grandfather, local pastor Durand Rhudde, considered Constable an inappropriate husband for his granddaughter. He even threatened the girl with disinheritance. Maria was forced to admit that a penniless marriage would bury John's hopes for making a career in painting.

The lovers kept on their relation almost in secret for the next seven years, until the grandfather's heart softened. However, he agreed to the marriage mainly because John inherited a fifth share in the family business after the death of his parents.

The 40-year-old Constable and his 29-year-old wife spent their honeymoon on the south coast. There, the artist developed new technique of brilliant colour and vivacious brushwork. At the same time, a greater emotional upsurge began to register in his work.

French triumph

In 1817, after the birth of the first of their seven children, the Constables settled in London. To support the family, the artist needed professional recognition, which came two years later, when he exhibited his first large canvas at the Royal Academy. The White Horse painting led to a series of his large-scale paintings   or "six footers", as the painter called them (their width was 6 feet or ore /over 1.8 meters).

In 1821, Constable showed The Hay Wain, which is now a cult for the British. However, then it was perceived without enthusiasm: critics considered the artist's energetic brushwork negligent. But the French artist Theodore Gericault, Théodore Géricault who at that time was in London, upon his return to his homeland, praised his English fellow artist to an art dealer John Arrowsmith. He bought four paintings of Constable, including The Hay Wain. At the Paris Salon of 1824, the canvas won a gold medal. Moreover, Eugene Delacroix, being impressed by the "careless" brushwork of the British artist, repainted the background of his Massacre de Scio after seeing the Constable’s picture.

In his lifetime, Constable was able to sell only twenty paintings in England, but in France he sold more than twenty in just a few years. Despite this, he refused all invitations to travel internationally to promote his work: "I would rather be a poor man [in England] than a rich man abroad."

Departed angel

After the birth of her seventh child in January 1828, Maria fell ill and died of tuberculosis at the age of forty-one. Intensely saddened, Constable wrote, "hourly do I feel the loss of my departed Angel-God only knows how my children will be brought up... the face of the World is totally changed to me". From that time on, he always dressed in black and was, according to his biographer Charles Leslie, "a prey to melancholy and anxious thoughts". He cared for his seven children for the rest of his life.

During Maria's illness, the family moved to Hampstead, a suburb of London. There Constable began to paint sketches of the sky, carefully capturing the well-recognized meteorological phenomena (12, 3, 4). Those sketches then became part of his full-scale compositions.

By 1824, pictorial fragmentation appeared in his technique as the artist sought to convey optical effects. Along with the use of vivid and vibrant colors, this led many to mistakenly call him the predecessor of Impressionism.

Alienation and depression

In the late work, Constable stopped painting certain places - in part because he did sketches in different regions: in Salisbury or in the fashionable seaside resort of Brighton, where Maria was trying to improve her health. But such abstraction and rejection of the depiction of farm labor can be interpreted differently. The economic depression after the Napoleonic Wars left agriculture in decline. In spite of this, the conservative Constable chose to glorify the abstract "good old England", unaffected by industrial and social changes.

The painter became a member of the Royal Academy in 1829, at the age of 52. His letters from the 1830s are full of alienation and depression. Such sentiments were no doubt fueled by the critical attacks that had been rained on him and William Turner since the mid-1820s. Although these masters never came close and approached landscape painting in different ways, both grew up in the tradition of Sir Joshua Reynolds, which deserved to be scorned in the eyes of a new generation of artists and critics who shaped their own values in a rapidly developing industrial society.

However, Constable continued to work. After the death of Mary, 20 thousand pounds remained, and he decided to publish a series of engravings (mezzotints) of some of his paintings. However, the artist’s indecisiveness and constant hesitations served him in disservice. The work on four dozen prints was delayed, the artist corrected one of them 13 times. As a result, when the collection entitled The English Landscape was published, it could not interest enough subscribers. The venture was not a financial success.

Ode to the past

In 1836, John Constable presented his last painting at the Royal Academy - "Cenotaph in memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds in Coleorton Hall, Leicestershire" (cenotaph is a symbolic grave containing no remains). The work was dedicated to the "father of British art", whom the painter revered. This painting became an ode to the outgoing traditional world, in which Constable's personal and artistic values were formed.

He died on the night of the 31st March, 1837, apparently from indigestion, and was buried with Maria in the graveyard of St John-at-Hampstead, Hampstead. His two sons John Charles and Charles Golding were also buried in this family tomb.
In 1888, the painter's daughter Isabelle donated the works of her father to the British nation.

Some of John Constable's living descendants continue the work of their famous ancestor. For example, 47-year-old artist and sculptor Sasha Constable lives and works in Cambodia. In 2003, she exhibited her work alongside paintings of her father, Richard Golding Constable.


During his lifetime, John Constable gained a reputation of a respected and significant landscape painter. But in the biography, which Charles Leslie published six years after his death, he also appears as a sincere and dedicated artist who fought against lawlessness and misunderstanding. In fact, the author edited his correspondence to hide his friend's least attractive character traits.

By the early 20th century, Constable's work was overestimated. In an attempt to find the British predecessors of Impressionism, art critics gave too much importance to his oil sketches. At the end of the last century, the historical facts proved this area of research as being controversial.

Also, some scholars try to interpret the artist's landscapes in the context of his era and see them as complex works of art, often with deep political overtones. Others prefer to view them as the essence of the true English style and way of life. The fact that the ongoing controversy confirms the vitality of John Constable's landscapes.

Written by Vlad Maslov 


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