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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

John Constable (1776–1837)

The English landscape painter John Constable once wrote, “I should paint my own places best.” This precept guided his career, as Constable developed a unique style combining objective studies of nature with a deeply personal vision of the countryside round his boyhood home. While most landscapists of the day traveled extensively in search of picturesque or sublime scenery, Constable never left England. His name is so closely associated with his native Stour Valley that the area is sometimes referred to as “Constable country.”

The son of Golding Constable, a landowning farmer, miller, and corn merchant, Constable grew up along the Stour River in East Bergholt, Suffolk. Although his family hoped that he would join his father’s business, they permitted him to enter the Royal Academy Schools at the age of twenty-two. Until he completed his studies nearly ten years later, Constable divided his time between East Bergholt, where he would sketch out of doors in the spring and summer, and London, where he exhibited finished oil paintings based on these open-air studies at the Academy.

Rejecting the accepted hierarchy of genres, which ranked idealized landscapes that told historical or mythological tales above views observed in nature, Constable sought recognition for humbler scenes of cultivated land and agricultural labor (The Cornfield; 1826; National Gallery, London). The small, precise painting Golding Constable’s Flower Garden (1815; Ipswich Borough Council) seems to record every detail of his father’s domestic garden, as well as the barns and fields beyond.

Beginning with the 1819 Academy exhibition, Constable demonstrated his aspirations more boldly by exhibiting large-scale scenes of working farms and waterways painted in his studio, using increasingly broad brushstrokes and thickly applied highlights. The Hay Wain (1821; National Gallery, London), one of these so-called six-footers, was among the three paintings that Constable exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1824, where he was awarded a gold medal. His strikingly fresh, apparently spontaneous transcription of the landscape, described by the French writer Stendhal as “the mirror of nature,” caused a sensation among French painters. For Eugène Delacroix, in particular, Constable’s rich, shimmering surfaces came as a revelation, and, during his 1825 visit to London, he sought out the reclusive artist.

Yet success had come late to Constable, who often struggled to support a large family (his wife Maria bore seven children before she died in 1828). Throughout the 1810s and 1820s, Constable supplemented his income by painting portraits (06.1272) of local dignitaries. The patronage of Dr. John Fisher, whom Constable first met in 1798 and who later became bishop of Salisbury, remained crucial throughout his career. Between 1811 and 1829, Constable often visited the Reverend Fisher at Salisbury, where he sketched the Gothic cathedral (50.145.8) from a range of viewpoints under various weather conditions. These preliminary oil studies served as the basis of several paintings that picture Salisbury Cathedral alternately menaced by storms, framed by puffy cumulous clouds, or surmounted by a rainbow.

Intensive studies of clouds and skies enabled Constable to achieve these unique atmospheric effects. In 1821 and 1822, during his intense “skying” period, he produced dozens of watercolor, crayon, and oil studies of the clouds over Hampstead Heath (2009.400.26). His cloud studies—celebrated today—were not exhibited in his lifetime. Painted rapidly, wet-in-wet, Constable used short strokes and a restricted color palette to train his hand and eye, and to enhance the realism of his later paintings. He labeled almost all of these images with scientific precision, indicating the date, time, wind, and weather conditions under which they were painted. Yet his ultimate goal was to paint the sky—which he deemed landscape’s “chief organ of sentiment”—more expressively. Indeed, landscapes from the time of his wife’s death (e.g., Hadleigh Castle, 1828–29; Tate, London) feature dark, turbulent skies that carry the brunt of the works’ emotional weight.

In the later part of his career, Constable made fewer open-air oil sketches. Instead, he increasingly prepared studio sketches inspired by his earlier outdoor drawings. He undertook one major project in his final years—a series of twenty mezzotints after his paintings entitled Various Subjects of Landscape, Characteristic of English Scenery (39.68.27) to be engraved by a little-known printmaker, David Lucas, under his supervision. The series, known as English Landscape and published from 1830 to 1833, became a manifesto of his views on landscape painting and a summary of his career. The second edition bore the subtitle “Principally Intended to Mark the Phenomena of the Chiar’Oscuro of Nature,” reflecting his belief that chiaroscuro, or the contrast between light and dark, was a principle of nature, and therefore crucial to landscape painting (the medium of mezzotint excels at conveying such tonal gradations). This emphasis on naturalism distinguishes Constable’s approach from the classical tradition of landscape painting. Today he is often considered, along with J. M. W. Turner, one of England’s greatest landscape painters.