At Large  March 9, 2023  Josh Coyne

John Constable: Britain's Local Landscape Master

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John Constable, The Hay Wain (1821). Oil on canvas, 130.2 × 185.4 cm (51+1⁄4 × 73 in). National Gallery, London

John Constable, a British landscape painter, is known for his works that capture ordinary daily life. Constable is set apart from his Romantic painting contemporaries because he chose to paint these quotidian scenes rather than the wild landscapes and romantic scenes that were in vogue at the time. Constable, though not recognized thoroughly during his lifetime, is now remembered as one of the greatest landscape painters of all time.

John Constable was born in Suffolk, England on the 11th of June, 1776. His father Golding Constable was a wealthy corn merchant and owner of the Flatford Mill in East Bergholt. Constable’s fortunate financial situation meant that he was able to study at a private school in Lavenham and later at a grammar school in Dedham, after which he was expected to take over the family business. However, in East Bergholt, Constable learned the basic techniques of painting from John Dunthorne, a local plumber and amateur artist, and ultimately fell in love with the craft. Golding Constable reluctantly gave John an allowance to attend the Royal Academy of Arts in 1799, while his younger brother Abram became the one to take over the family business.

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John Constable, The Lock, 1824, oil on canvas

At the Royal Academy, Constable spent most of his time studying and emulating the styles of the old masters. Among his favorites were Thomas Gainsborough, Claude Lorrain, Peter Paul Rubens, Annibale Carracci, and Jacob van Ruisdael, all of whom had a significant influence on his work. The influence of Claude Lorrain in particular was apparent throughout his career, evident in the freshness of light, color, and touch of his paintings.

Constable’s work almost entirely focuses on depicting the English countryside, and despite his moderate success later in his career, he never left the country. Cottages, small churches and lakes, and ordinary people at work in the countryside were his primary subjects, a distinctly English spin on Romantic-era paintings.

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John Constable, The White Horse, 1819, oil on canvas

Constable only scraped by as a professional artist for most of his early career, generally commissioned for portraiture and country house painting. It wasn’t until 1819 that Constable sold his first major painting, The White Horse. The print without the frame was sold for 100 guineas to his friend John Fischer. This was a substantial sum of money at the time. The White Horse would mark the beginning of Constable’s success as an artist; it garnered enough attention for him to be elected as a member of the Royal Academy and it was also the first of a series of six enormous landscape paintings of the River Stour nicknamed the “six-footers” for their immense size. These paintings would be considered Constable’s masterpieces—Stratford Mill (1820), The Hay Wain (1821), View on the Stour near Dedham (1822), The Lock (1824), and The Leaping Horse (1825). The Hay Wain is widely considered to be Constable’s magnum opus and depicts a horse-drawn hay cart crossing a river in front of a small cottage, with the serene English countryside in the background.

Wikimedia Commons

John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831). Oil on canvas, 153.7 × 97 cm (60.5 × 38 in). Tate Britain, Londom

His artistic success was overshadowed when his wife, Maria Bicknell, fell ill with tuberculosis in 1824. Constable and his family relocated to Brighton, hoping the salty air of the coast would help her with her affliction. While he was there he started to paint coastal scenes, but his only major piece from this period was Chain Pier, Brighton, exhibited in 1827. Maria died in January 1828, and her death took a serious toll on the artist’s life. The loss of Maris had a significant effect on the nature of Constable’s artwork, as his painting began to incorporate darker, more expressive tones compared to the serenity and calmness of his earlier work. Pieces like Hadleigh Castle (1829) and Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831) are emblematic of this shift to a more somber mood.

 John Constable died in 1837 and was buried next to his wife at St. John Church in Hampstead. Constable’s artwork, although it did not garner him the financial success he deserved during his life, would grow to be considered some of the most valuable and popular of all British art. Across the channel, Constable’s work inspired the French Barbizon School, a Realist movement during the mid-nineteenth century that attempted to capture the innate serenity of the French countryside. 

About the Author

Josh Coyne

Josh Coyne is a North Carolina native that has lived in Chapel Hill for most of his life. He is a rising junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is planning on double majoring in History and English. Josh wrote for Art & Object as an intern for the Summer of 2021.

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