Was John Constable a revolutionary artist?

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1. A modern painter?

John Constable is one of Britain’s best-known artists, loved for his landscapes and seascapes. These paintings depict an idyllic early 19th Century England.

Before Constable, landscapes featured romanticised views of ruins, mountains or foreign lands. Constable painted nature more truthfully, working partly outdoors to capture the colours of rural England.

But in Constable's seemingly tranquil scenes, can the beginnings of new movements in art be identified? Should we now consider him one of art’s revolutionaries?

2. A serene England

The Hay Wain is one of Britain's most-loved paintings.

The scene is based on a site near Flatford on the River Stour, in Suffolk, the county of Constable's birth. The painting was finished in London from preparatory open-air sketches made at the scene.

Constable was exhibiting pastoral scenes such as The Hay Wain during the industrial revolution, a time of huge advances in manufacturing and production processes.

This has led to his work being dismissed by some critics as giving a nostalgic view of the England of the time.

Today, his paintings can seem devalued by their use as a marketing device for biscuit tins and tea towels.

3. Painting in the open air

Artists often made preliminary sketches in the open air using pencil, pen and ink or watercolours.

These would then be used as source material for fully worked up compositions painted in the studio.

To Constable his oil sketches were simply his personal preparatory material, shown to few people in his lifetime, but today they are highly prized for their bravura technique and impressionistic vision.

Constable and colour

Many of his contemporaries painted in muted tones with subtle brushstrokes, aiming to copy Old Masters whose work was often discoloured by age or varnish.

Constable chose to use a palette of brightly coloured oils which reflected nature in their vibrancy.

4. Brush strokes

Constable was devoted to his wife, Maria Bicknell. She suffered from tuberculosis for much of their marriage and died in 1828.

This death, along with that of his best friend, the Rev John Fisher, had a significant impact.

In 1829 Constable was elected to the Royal Academy. This meant he was free from critical and peer review. The dynamism in Constable’s technique was never more visible than in these final years of his life.

Constable felt able to express his emotional turmoil on the canvas. His desolation can be sensed in paintings such as the 1829 work, Hadleigh Castle. At this time, he wrote to his brother, "I shall never feel again as I have felt, the face of the World is totally changed to me".

In addition to his bright, naturalistic palette, he defied convention by using sweeping brushstrokes, laying paint on thickly, enabling him to capture light and movement.

This technique was exceptional but commercially disastrous: to early 19th Century buyers it looked sketchy and unfinished.

5. 'Skying'

Some of Constable's landscapes were so large they stretched to almost two metres in width.

In a bid to improve the skies in his landscapes he began a systematic study of the sky in the early 1820s.

Constable painted a series of around 100 observational sketches of the sky and clouds, working mainly in the Hampstead Heath area, in north London. He even coined a name for these oil and watercolour studies, 'skying'.

At the time Constable was accurately depicting Britain's skies, the science of meteorology was developing.

Constable believed that there was a link between his own work and this new branch of science. He took care to make reference notes on the backs of his sketches detailing the date, time of day, prevailing weather conditions and the direction of sunlight.

Constable's meticulous notes, combined with the accuracy of his depiction of sky colour and cloud formation, have been used as reference points by scientists monitoring air pollution and climate change.

6. 'Painting is a science'

In 1824, Constable moved his family to Brighton in the hope it would help Maria's health.

Although he considered Brighton to be ‘an odious place’ it brought him into contact with other influential thinkers, including chemist and physicist Michael Faraday, with whom he established a friendship.

Constable followed Faraday's experiments. In 1836 he was invited to lecture at the Royal Institution at Faraday's invitation, where he said 'Painting is a science, and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature.'

Although Constable had painted the sea earlier in his career, in Brighton he expanded his range of subjects taking full advantage of the oil sketching materials and techniques that he had perfected.

At the Royal Academy in 1827 he exhibited a large painting of Brighton's Chain Pier. At over 300 metres long, the pier was the cutting-edge engineering technology of its day.

Constable also embraced advances in the art world.

When chemistry combined with the industrial revolution to create new pigments for artists, they were quickly incorporated into his work.

7. An art revolutionary?

Do the innovative techniques adopted by Constable belie his safe and sentimental image? Was he a ground-breaker or part of a new, evolving movement in art?

Painting outdoors

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Not the only one to do so

Recent exhibitions have shown other painters also worked outside from the late 18th Century. Constable is perhaps simply the best known artist to do this.

Use of colour

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Considered unconventional

Flecks of pure colour in sketches and use of new pigments such as chrome yellow, orange vermillion and emerald green in his later works were extremely unusual.

Brush strokes

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His emphatic, choppy brushwork and use of impasto and a palette knife was a very radical technique for this period.

Subject matter

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Constable romanticised the working landscape, for example by depicting a sweating lock keeper carrying out the mundane activity of opening the lock gates.