English painter, ranked with
as one of the greatest British landscape artists.
Although he showed an early talent for art and began painting his
native Suffolk scenery before he left school, his great originality
matured slowly. He committed himself to a career as an artist only in
1799, when he joined the
Royal Academy Schools and it was not until 1829 that he was
grudgingly made a full Academician, elected by a majority of only
one vote. In 1816 he became financially secure on the death of his
father and married Maria Bicknell after a seven-year courtship and in
the fact of strong opposition from her family. During the 1820s
he began to win recognition:
The Hay Wain
(National Gallery, London, 1821)
won a gold medal at the Paris Salon of 1824 and Constable was admired by
Bonington among others.
His wife died in 1828, however, and the remaining years of his life
were clouded by despondency.
After spending some years working in the picturesque tradition of
landscape and the manner of
Constable developed his own original treatment from
the attempt to render scenery more directly and realistically, carrying
on but modifying in an individual way the tradition inherited from
Ruisdael and the Dutch 17th-century landscape painters.
Just as his contemporary William Wordsworth rejected what he called the
poetic diction of his predecessors, so Constable turned away from
the pictorial conventions of 18th-century landscape painters, who, he said,
were always running after pictures and seeking the truth at second hand'.
Constable thought that No two days are alike, nor even two hours;
neither were there ever two leaves of a tree alike since the creation
of the world', and in a then new way he represented in paint the
atmospheric effects of changing light in the open air, the movement of
clouds across the sky, and his excited delight at these phenomena,
stemming from a profound love of the country: 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.
He never went abroad, and his finest works are of the places he knew
and loved best, particularly Suffolk and Hampstead, where he lived from
1821. To render the shifting flicker of light and weather he abandoned
fine traditional finish, catching the sunlight in blobs of pure white
or yellow, and the drama of storms with a rapid brush.
was among the contemporaries who applauded the freshness of
Constable's approach, for
C. R. Leslie
records him as saying: I like de landscapes of Constable; he is always
picturesque, of a fine color, and de lights always in de right places;
but he makes me call for my great coat and umbrella.
Constable worked extensively in the open air, drawing and sketching in
oils, but his finished pictures were produced in the studio.
For his most ambitious works six-footers as he called them he
followed the unusual technical procedure of making a full-size oil
sketch, and in the 20th century there has been a tendancy to praise
these even more highly than the finished works because of their freedom
and freshness of brushwork.
(The full-size sketch for
The Hay Wain
is in the V&A, London, which has the finest collection of Constable's
In England Constable had no real sucessor and the many imitators
(who included his son
turned rather to the formal compositions than to the more direct
sketches. In France, however, he was a major influence on
such as Delacroix, on the painters of the
Barbizon School, and ultimately on the