John Constable RA (1776 - 1837)

RA Collection: People and Organisations

One of the greatest landscape painters, John Constable devoted his career to capturing nature on his canvases. He is one of Britain’s best-known artists but he sold few paintings in his lifetime.

Born near the River Stour in Suffolk, Constable spent much of his life painting the scenes of his ‘careless boyhood’ which he said ‘made me a painter’. He was depicting the area so often that it’s now commonly known as “Constable country”.

The eldest son of a wealthy mill owner, he began by working for his father but in 1799 he eventually persuaded his family to support his artistic ambitions and entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1800, aged 24.

At this time, the pastoral scenes were not fashionable and were not as highly regarded as paintings of historic scenes, which were viewed as the pinnacle of artistic achievement. After one of his early works was rejected by the 1802 Summer Exhibition, he was consoled by President of the Royal Academy, Benjamin West, who assured him: “we shall hear more of you again; you must have loved nature before you could have painted this.”

From the early 1800s Constable made a profound commitment to studying outdoors, and this became the foundation of his art. He toured the Peak District and the Lake District in the early 1800s but these mountainous regions inspired him less than scenes of Suffolk. In 1819 Constable began work on a series of six-foot canvases, with the aim of showcasing his skill as a landscape painter. These included The Leaping Horse and The Hay Wain; the latter failed to find a buyer when shown at the 1821 Summer Exhibition, but received a Gold Medal at the Paris Salon three years later.

Constable’s early struggles to establish himself as a painter also delayed his marriage to his childhood sweetheart Maria Bicknell, whose father strongly opposed the match. They eventually married in 1816 after a seven year courtship, and settled in Hampstead, where Constable hoped the clean air would improve Maria’s fragile health.

In the early 1820s Constable undertook a series of sky studies which enhanced his understanding of natural phenomena. In the work he considered to be his masterpiece, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831), Constable illuminates the cathedral with a rainbow, which although meteorologically impossible in the conditions depicted, was realistically depicted. It is believed that the rainbow serves a symbolic function – it ends at the house of his friend the Archdeacon, who counselled Constable through his grief when Maria died in 1828, shortly after giving birth to their seventh child. Constable never remarried and wore black for the rest of his life.

Constable was finally elected a Royal Academician in 1829. In 1832 he exhibited The Opening of Waterloo Bridge at the Summer Exhibition, a vibrant painting he had spent 13 years perfecting. It was hung alongside JMW Turner’s Helvoetsluys – prompting Turner to add a bright-red buoy to his work at the last minute in a bid to outshine his rival. A crestfallen Constable compared the act to “firing a gun”.

Constable died suddenly in 1837. His first biographer, his friend and fellow Royal Academician Charles Robert Leslie, sadly noted that he left a studio full of unsold works.


Royal Academician

Born: 11 June 1776 in East Bergholt, Suffolk, England, United Kingdom

Died: 1 April 1837

Nationality: British

RA Schools student from 21 June 1800

Elected ARA: 1 November 1819

Elected RA: 10 February 1829

Gender: Male

Preferred media: Painting

Works by John Constable in the RA Collection

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Works associated with John Constable in the RA Collection

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Associated books

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Associated archives

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