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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Discover the route to stardom of the exceptional landscape painter, John Constable, in this detailed biography.

Early Life

Constable was born into a wealthy family. His father, Golding, owned Flatford Mill and Dedham Mill and was a hugely successful and influential com merchant.

He also owned a large container ship, The Telegraph, which was used for transportation purposes to get goods safely into London.

Constable's eldest and only brother, Abram, had a learning disability, and as such, it was expected that the running of the business would be handed over to John, on his father's death.

However, John Constable wanted to forge his own path. He did enrol in business school, at his father's insistence, and worked for a short while in the family business, but Abram did eventually take over the running of the company and its associated mills.

Early Work as an Artist

Constable began to sketch the local area from a very young age. He created sketches of the local mills, waterfalls and countryside. It is many of these early sketches that backed the foundation of his later work, and Constable placed great emphasis upon his sketches, claiming that they made him the painter who he wanted to be.

It was during his youth that Constable made acquaintances with the art collector, George Beaumont, who allowed Constable to view the painting, Hagar and the Angel, that was painted by Claude Lorrain, it was this painting that became the inspiration and force behind Constables paintings. A few years later, while holidaying in Middlesex, he met John Thomas Smith, a professional artist, who urged Constable to persue his love of drawing and painting, while remaining as a player in the family business.

It was during the year, 1799, that Constable was finally allowed to pursue his dream of becoming a professional painter, as his father finally relented and accepted his son's choice of career. His father gave him some money, enough to allow him to enrol on the probationary course at the prestigious, Royal Academy School.

Studies with the Old Masters

As well as his studies comprising of those of the Old Masters, he also perfected the art of life drawing. Artists that both inspired and shaped his artistic style were those of Thomas Gainsborough, Peter Paul Rubens, Claude Lorrain, Jacob van Ruisdael and Annibale Carracciand. Four years later in 1803, he was proudly exhibiting his very own paintings in the Academy. During 1802 Constable declined the great honour of becoming an esteemed master of drawing at the Great Marlow Military College. He declined as he believed that gaining this position would mean an end to his artistic career. At this point, Constable was determined to become a professional painter of landscapes.

Throughout his artistic career, Constable fiercely fought against the popular theme of the era, which was of that to paint from the imagination. Constable was determined to paint accurate depictions of the nature that surrounded him. He very much believed in painting in the moment, and of capturing the environment exactly as it was at that given time. He was a progressive artist and thinker. As part of his painting method, he would compose full sized and to scale sketches, and then use them as a basis for his finished painting. These sketches continue to fascinate many critics and individuals who adore art, as they were extremely unique during this period.

Significant Paintings

Two of his oil paintings; The Hay Wain and The Leaping Horse when in their primitive sketch phases, did lack in expression and artistic enthusiasm, that are clearly evident in the finished paintings. The oil sketches that he produced are of particular interest, in that they did show a different artistic style directed towards the technique of landscape painting. Constable painted in a completely different style to his fellow contemporary artists and paved the way for artists to express themselves in whatever manner they chose. The same was also true with reference to Constable's watercolours. Stonehenge that he painted in 1835, showed the observer a stunning double rainbow, which today is considered by many to be his finest and most famous watercolour painting. The painting was exhibited in 1836, with the description telling the viewer that the monument was mysterious and that it is linked to both the past and present.

Use of Oil Sketches

During his career, Constable undertook many large scale artistic sketches of the landscape. He also had a great interest in clouds and composed many cloud paintings. His studies were geared towards accurately representing on canvas the geographical climate and atmosphere. For example, one such painting was The Chain Pier that he painted in 1827. He willed the observer to almost wish for an umbrella, while observing the scene before them, with an apparent storm brewing on the horizon. All of his sketches where conducted in the landscape he wished to paint, out in the elements. His choice for doing so, was to evoke all the senses and to accurately show natural movement and light.

Constable possessed a vey unique and rustic style for the period in which he painted, with the observer clearly viewing uneven and broken brushstrokes on the canvas. He often painted small dabs of paint, which he would later paint over with lighter touches, giving the impression of illuminating light. One painting that clearly shows this artistic style to its fullest is that of the Seascape Study with Rain Cloud from 1824. This was painted while he was staying in Brighton and the dark applied brush strokes are clearly delisting the dark and brooding sea.

He was also very much known for his painting of rainbows. Two of his many paintings that have rainbows as central themes include the Cottage at East Bergholt and Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows.

Artistic Legacy

Constable's fresh and honest technique of painting completely revolutionised the art world and opened the doors for many future artists. He inspired fellow artists such as Delacroix and Géricault, as wellas well as artists working in the French Barbizon School of Art. The French impressionist movement of the nineteenth century was also greatly influenced by his style and unique talent and take on the world.

Constable's most famous works include Wivenhoe Park, that he painted in 1816; Dedham Vale, that was painted in 1802 and of course, The Hay Wain from 1821. Although incredibly popular and well known today, Constable failed to become financially comfortable from his art. It was only at the age of 52 that he became a member of the Royal Academy. His work was heartily accepted and well known in France, which is where he sold must of his paintings. It was Constable and his style of art that inspired the formation of the Barbizon School of Art.