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John Constable

British Painter

Movement: Romanticism

Born: June 11, 1776 - East Bergholt, Suffolk, England

Died: March 31, 1837 - London, England

John Constable Timeline


"[painting] is with me but another word for feeling."
John Constable
"I associate my careless boyhood with all that lies on the banks of the Stour; those scenes made me a painter"
John Constable
"Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature."
John Constable
"We see nothing till we truly understand it."
John Constable
"I never saw an ugly thing in my life: for let the form of an object be what it may - light, shade, and perspective will always make it beautiful."
John Constable

"Landscape is my mistress - 't is to her that I look for fame - and all that the warmth of the imagination renders dear to Man."

John Constable Signature


Along with J. M. W. Turner, Constable revolutionized landscape painting of the 19th century and his paintings had a profound and far-reaching effect on European art, particularly in France. Constable moved away from the highly idealized landscapes that were the expected norm of the period and instead favored realistic depictions of the natural world created through close observation. Constable is most clearly remembered for his bucolic images painted in and around the Stour Valley but he also produced over 100 portraits and a huge number of preparatory sketches often completed in oil. In these he experimented with a freer style of representation and this allowed him to capture the effects of elemental change on the countryside with a spontaneity which he was then able to transfer to his finished works. Although his sketches are considerably more impressionistic and less detailed than his display canvases his overall aim remained the same regardless of medium and technique - to depict the scenery that he saw in a truthful and realistic manner.

Key Ideas

Constable was a pioneering advocate of realistic depictions of the natural world. He rejected contemporary styles of landscape painting stating that "The great vice of the present day is bravura, an attempt to do something beyond the truth". Instead he created his own distinct manner of representation based on transferring what he saw as truthfully as possible to a canvas.
He was fascinated by changing patterns of clouds, weather and light and he sought to capture these moments in his oil sketches. He worked with large, loose brushstrokes to create expressive representations which depicted an overall sense of what he saw rather than fine details. His sketches can be seen as an early precursor to the work of the Impressionists thirty years later.
Even in his completed work, Constable abandoned the traditional invisible brushstrokes that were expectations of Academic art of the period. Instead he applied paint in a range of ways including with a palette knife giving his canvases a textured and imperfect finish which served to enhance their realism.
Constable also utilized color more widely than was the norm, reflecting the hues he found in nature. He is particularly known for his unique addition of pure white highlights which served to represent the sparkle of light on water.

Most Important Art

John Constable Famous Art

Dedham Vale (1802)

This was one of Constable's first major paintings, created when he was 26. Painted in the brief hiatus between the end of the French revolutionary wars and the beginning of the Napoleonic wars the following year, the tranquillity of the image belies the wider political turmoil. Whilst the techniques that were to serve Constable so well in his later career are not yet fully developed the painting already demonstrates his commitment to the close observation of nature and this can be seen in the detailed rendering of the trees and sky.

The eye is led across the painting from the foreground along the route of the river to the distant tower of Dedham church, which although small, forms a clear focal point for the painting. The trees on either side of the canvas form a frame to the central part of the image presenting the view in the form of a smaller cameo and further serves to focus the eye on a building that would have been a landmark of Constable's childhood.

The composition with the trees in the foreground framing the image to the right closely mirrors the arrangement of Lorrain's work Hagar and the Angel (1646) and it is likely that Constable was inspired by the piece that played a formative role in his early art appreciation and education.

26 years later Constable created a second image of the same view called The Vale of Dedham (1828), although very similar in appearance there are a number of small differences that separate the two, particularly the inclusion of figures in the later painting.
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John Constable Artworks in Focus:



Born in East Bergholt, a village in Suffolk, England, John Constable was the second son of Golding and Ann (nee Watts), wealthy corn merchants who owned Flatford Mill in East Bergholt and later Dedham Mill in Essex. Constable's older brother (also called Golding) was subject to seizures and was considered unfit to succeed his father into the family business. The task consequently fell to John and after leaving his school in Dedham, Constable joined his father in the corn business, a role for which he had limited enthusiasm and aptitude. Despite his disability Golding Jnr went onto to become a land warden and the two brothers remained close throughout their lives. Constable had five siblings in total, three sisters and another brother, Abram, who was the youngest member of the family.

In his youth Constable travelled the countryside surrounding his home on sketching trips, these landscapes later became a focus for much of his art. As he recalled later in life, "I associate my careless boyhood with all that lies on the banks of the Stour; those scenes made me a painter." His family introduced him to Sir George Beaumont, a collector, who showed him Hagar and the Angel (1646) by Claude Lorrain which was an early inspiration for him. Although his interest in art was encouraged by John Thomas Smith, an artist and friend of the family, he was strongly advised by him to stay in his father's business rather than take up painting professionally.

Early Training

Constable's Self-Portrait (1806)
Constable's Self-Portrait (1806)

In 1799, after having worked in the corn business for seven years, Constable persuaded his father to let him pursue a career as an artist. He was given a small allowance and entered the Royal Academy Schools where he studied life drawing and became familiar with the works of the Old Masters. On completion of his training he refused the position of drawing master at Great Marlow Military School, resolving instead to become a professional landscape painter. In a letter to John Dunthorne he wrote 'For the last two years... I have not endeavoured to represent nature with the same elevation of mind with which I set out... There is room enough for a natural painter.' He started exhibiting at the Royal Academy from 1802.

Apart from a two-month tour of the Lake District in 1806, Constable established a pattern of spending his summers sketching and painting around East Bergholt and then returning to London in the winter. Unable to find buyers or commissions for his landscapes, he turned to portraiture to supplement his meagre income, and although he produced a number of fine portraits he found the process dull compared to the pleasure he took in landscape painting.

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John Constable Biography Continues

In 1811 Constable visited Bishop John Fisher and his family in Salisbury, the two had initially met when Fisher was Rector of Langham Church in Essex which was close to East Bergholt. Bishop Fisher became one of Constable's biggest patrons and Salisbury inspired some of his greatest works. The Bishop also introduced Constable to his nephew, Reverend John Fisher and the two developed a life-long friendship.

Mature Period

In 1809 Constable proposed to Maria Bicknell who he had first met when she was twelve. Her grandfather, however, forbade the match and threatened Maria with disinheritance, believing the Constable family to be socially inferior. Unable to support a wife and family on his limited income, the couple maintained a secret correspondence but were not able to marry until after the death of Constable's father in 1816. John Senior left provision for each of his children and Constable's brother Abram continued to run the business for the benefit of the whole family. Although not making Constable wealthy, this finally provided the necessary financial stability for marriage. The couple were wed at the Church of St Martin in the Fields in London and spent their honeymoon with Bishop Fisher and his wife in Osmington, Dorset, followed by a tour of the south coast of England. It was sketching the sea at Brighton and Weymouth on this trip that encouraged Constable to adopt a freer brushwork and to experiment with showing greater emotional intensity in his work, particularly in his rendition of the sky and sea. After the honeymoon, Constable returned to London initially setting up house with his new wife in Bloomsbury, before they moved to Hampstead in 1819.

<i>Portrait of Golding Constable</i> by John Constable (1815)
Portrait of Golding Constable by John Constable (1815)

Constable continued to scrape an income as a painter, although matters improved in 1819 when he sold his first important work, The White Horse (1819), this was a large-scale canvas, known as a six-footer. The same year he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy.

In 1821 he exhibited The Hay Wain (1821) at the Royal Academy. It was shown again, along with two other of his paintings, at the Paris Salon of 1824, where it was awarded a gold medal from Charles X. Although more successful in France than in England, Constable refused to cross the Channel to promote his work, writing to Francis Darby, a fellow artist and friend, that he "would rather be a poor man in England, than a rich man abroad."

<i>Chain Pier - Brighton</i>, John Constable (c.1826-27)
Chain Pier - Brighton, John Constable (c.1826-27)

Constable's wife Maria, had been a weak child, and ill health plagued her for most of her life. In 1824, at the suggestion of physicians, Constable took his family to Brighton, an increasingly popular holiday resort, to enjoy the fresh sea air. Her health improved, and they maintained lodgings in the town for the next four years. Although he disliked the people in Brighton, describing it in a letter to his friend, John Fisher, as a "the offscouring of London... and the beach is Piccadilly by the sea", he loved the surrounding landscapes of which he made a range of experimental oil sketches.

Throughout his life Constable was compared with Turner and anecdotes suggest that the two maintained a lively and personal rivalry. Turner initially painted in the academic style and was welcomed into the English art establishment early in his career, finding a mentor in Joshua Reynolds. Later his style developed and diverged becoming increasingly impressionistic. Whilst similarities can be drawn between the style of Constable's oil sketches and Turner's later work their aims deviated. In contrast to Constable's studied approach, Turner often choose his subjects, compositions and lighting for dramatic effect using his images as a means to pass comment on contemporary issues and to create an emotional response in the viewer, rather than seeking the truth of what he saw.

Late Period

<i>Maria Constable with two of her children</i>, John Constable (1820)
Maria Constable with two of her children, John Constable (1820)

In March 1828, Maria's father died, and her large inheritance meant that their financial worries were over. Happiness was, however, short-lived. Maria, weakened by the birth of their seventh child, died from tuberculosis in November 1828, aged 41. Constable was distraught, writing to his brother Golding, "hourly do I feel the loss of my departed Angel... the face of the World is totally changed to me."

In February, the following year, Constable was elected to the Royal Academy at the age of 52. Constable never recovered from the loss of his wife and struggled with the responsibility of bringing up their seven children. In 1831 he painted his final six-footer, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, (1831) at the suggestion of Bishop Fisher.

Constable spent the last few years of his life delivering public lectures on landscape painting at the Royal Institution, the Hampstead and Literary and Scientific Society and the Worcester Athenaeum. He also embarked on a project to publish a folio of mezzotints but was unable to interest enough subscribers for the venture to be a financial success, although today they are widely sought after. He died in 1837 in his studio in Bloomsbury and is buried at Hampstead Parish Church, London.


The grave of John Constable, Hampstead Parish Church, London
The grave of John Constable, Hampstead Parish Church, London

Constable was one of the first artists of the Romantic movement to create landscape paintings drawn directly from nature rather than the idealised and dramatic depictions favoured by other artists of the period and in taking this stance he pioneered Naturalism in Britain. His treatment of light, application of paint and his use of bright, naturalistic colors also set him apart. Through the exhibition of his canvases in Paris, Constable influenced major figures of European art including Richard Parkes Bonington and Delacroix . Delacroix's journals include an account of Constable's technique, particularly his use of "broken colour and flickering light". Delacroix incorporated these ideas into his work when he repainted the background to Scenes from the Massacres of Chios (1824).

Constable's legacy is also apparent in the work of the Barbizon School, a group of French painters who worked to establish Realism in French landscape painting. His impasto style and his practice of direct observations from nature were developed by notable artists from this school such as Jean-Francois Millet and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and later, by the Impressionists.

Although Constable fell out of favour following the Gothic revival in the mid-19th century, he found a new following in the early-20th century, particularly with the British Impressionists such as Philip Wilson Steer. Lucian Freud also cited Constable as a significant influence on his work, commending his oil sketches as "completely fresh, really passionate pictures."

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
John Constable
Interactive chart with John Constable's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
View Influences Chart


Thomas GainsboroughThomas Gainsborough
Claude LorrainClaude Lorrain
Peter Paul RubensPeter Paul Rubens
Esajas van de Velde
Hendrick Avercamp

Personal Contacts

George Beaumont
John Thomas Smith
Bishop of Salisbury
Benjamin West
John Dunthorne


Dutch Golden Age

Influences on Artist
John Constable
John Constable
Years Worked: 1802 - 1837
Influenced by Artist


Theodore GericaultTheodore Gericault
Eugène DelacroixEugène Delacroix
Jean-François MilletJean-François Millet
Jean-Baptiste-Camille CorotJean-Baptiste-Camille Corot
Philip Wilson Steer

Personal Contacts

Charles Boner
Rev. John Fisher
Charles Robert Leslie


The Barbizon SchoolThe Barbizon School

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Content compiled and written by Zaid S. Sethi

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kate Stephenson

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Zaid S. Sethi
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kate Stephenson
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Useful Resources on John Constable




The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.


Memoirs of the Life of John Constable Recomended resource

By C.R. Leslie


By Ian Fleming-Williams and Leslie Parris

Constable: The Natural Painter

By Graham Reynolds

John Constable: The Man and His Art

By Ronald Parkinson

More Interesting Books about John Constable
John Constable: The Making of a Master, V&A, review: 'spellbinding'

By Mark Hudson
The Daily Telegraph
Sept 16, 2014

Constable and the English Landscape

By Beth Harris and Steven Zucker
The Khan Academy

Turner and Constable exhibitions revive Britain's greatest art rivalry Recomended resource

By Jonathan Jones
The Guardian
April 24, 2014

The Romantic Art of John Constable and Eugene Delacroix Recomended resource

By Claudia Reid
Jan 1, 2013

More Interesting Articles about John Constable
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