John Constable

Self-Portait (1806)

John Constable (11 June 177631 March 1837) was an English Romantic painter. Born in Suffolk, he is known principally for his landscape paintings of Dedham Vale, the area surrounding his home. He was one of the earliest painters who painted with oil en plein air; so he made a lot of fresh and direct oil-sketches of the English landscape.

SourcedEdit

LettersEdit

Cottage at East Bergholt (1836)
  • Painting is but another word for feeling.
    • Letter to Rev John Fisher October 1821
  • No man who can do any one thing well will be able to any different thing equally well.
    • Letter to Rev John Fisher 1825
  • My art flatters nobody by imitation, it courts nobody by smoothness, nobody by petitelieness without either fal-de-lal or fiddle-de-dee; how then can I hope to be popular?
    • Letter to Mr. C. R. Leslie 22 June 1832
  • Here I am quite alone amongst the Oaks and solitudes of Helmingham Park. I have taken quiet possession of the parsonage finding it quite empty. A woman comes up from the farm house (where I eat) and makes the bed; and I am left at liberty to wander were I please during the day. There are abundance of fine trees of all sort; through the place upon the whole affords good objects [rather] than fine scenery, but I can badly judge yet what I may have to shew You. I have made one of two... drawing that may be useful. I shall not come home yet.
    • Letter to John Dunthorne on his drawing: 'Helmingham Dell,' 1800, as quoted in Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable (Tate Gallery Publications, London, 1993), p. 391
  • I paint by all the daylight we have and that is little enough, less perhaps than you have by much... imagine to yourself how a purl must look through a burnt glass.
    • Letter to John Dunthorne, 1801; as quoted in Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable (Tate Gallery Publications, London, 1993), p. 510
  • And however one's mind may be elevated, and kept us to what is excellent, by the works of the Great Masters — still Nature is the fountain's head, the source from whence all originally must spring — and should an artist continue his practice without referring to nature he must soon form a manner, & be reduced to the same deplorable situation as the French painter mentioned by Sir J. Reynolds, who told him that he had long ceased to look at nature for she only put him out.

    For the last two years I have been running after pictures, and seeking the truth at second hand. I have not endeavoured to represent nature with the same elevation of mind — but have neither endeavoured to make my performances look as if really executed by other men.

    I am come to a determination to make no idle visits this summer, nor to give up my time to common-place people. I shall return to Bergholt, where I shall make some laborious studies from nature — and I shall endeavour to get a pure and unaffected manner of representing the scenes that may employ me.

    • Letter to John Dunthorne (29 May 1802), from John Constable's Correspondence, ed. R.B. Beckett (Ipswich, Suffolk Records Society, 1962-1970), part 2, pp. 31-32
Weymouth Bay (1816)
  • There is room enough for a natural painture. The great vice of the present day is bravura, an attempt to do something beyond the truth. In endeavouring to do something better than well, they do what in reality is good for nothing. Fashion always had, & will have, its day — but truth (in all things) only will last, and can only have just claims on posterity.
    • Letter to John Dunthorne (29 May 1802), from John Constable's Correspondence, part 2, pp. 31-32
  • When I sit down to make a sketch from nature, the first thing I try to do is to forget that I have ever seen a picture.
    • As quoted in Richard Friedenthal, Letters of the great artists – from Blake to Pollock (Thames and Hudson, London, 1963), p. 40
  • I have been living a hermit-life, though always with my pencil in my hand... How much real delight have I had with the study of landscape this summer! Either I am myself improved in the art of seeing nature, which Sir Joshua call painting, or nature has unveiled her beauties to me less fastidiously. Perhaps there is something of both, so we will divide the compliment.
    • Letter to Rev. John Fisher (22 July 1812), as quoted in Richard Friedenthal, Letters of the great artists – from Blake to Pollock (Thames and Hudson, London, 1963), p. 40
  • But You know Landscape is my mistress — 'tis to her that I look for fame — and all that the warmth of the imagination renders dear to Man.
    • Letter to his future wife, Maria Bicknell (22 September 1812), as quoted in Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable (Tate Gallery Publications, London, 1993), p. 23
  • I have added some ploughmen to the landscape form the park pales which is a great help, but I must try and warm the picture a little more if I can... but I look to do a great deal better in future. I am determined to finish a small picture in the spot for every one I intend to make in future. But this I have always talked about but never yet done – I think however my mind is more settled and determined than ever on this point.
    • Letter to John Dunthorne (14 February 1814), as quoted in Constable (Tate Gallery Publications, London, 1993), p. 151
  • I am going on very well with my pictures... the park (Wivenhoe Park) is the most forward — the great difficulty has been to get so much in as they wanted to make them acquainted with the scene — on my left is a grotto with some elms — at the head of a piece of water — in the centre is the house over a beautifull wood and very far to the right is a Deer House — what it was necessary to add. So that my view comprehended to many degrees — but to day I got over the difficulty and I begin to like it 'myself'... I live in the park and mrs Rebow says I am very unsociable.
    • Letter to his future wife, Maria Bicknell (26 August 1816), as quoted in Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable (Tate Gallery Publications, London, 1993), p. 119
Study of Clouds (1822)
  • I know very well what I am about, & that my skies have not been neglected, though they often failed in execution — and often, no doubt, from an over-anxiety about them — which will alone destroy that easy appearance which nature always has — in all her movements.
    • Letter to Rev. John Fisher (23 October 1821), from John Constable's Correspondence, part 6, pp. 76-78
The Leaping Horse, study (1825)
  • But the sound of water escaping from mill-dams, &c., willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts, and brickwork, I love such things. Shakespeare could make everything poetical; he tells us of poor Tom's haunts among "sheep cotes and mills." As long as I do paint, I shall never cease to paint such places. They have always been my delight.
    • Letter to Rev. John Fisher (23 October 1821), from John Constable's Correspondence, part 6, pp. 76-78
  • Still I should paint my own places best; painting is with me but another word for feeling, and I associate "my careless boyhood" with all that lies on the banks of the Stour; those scenes made me a painter, and I am grateful; that is, I had often thought of pictures of them before ever I touched a pencil, and your picture ['The White Horse'] is one of the strongest instance I can recollect of it.
    • Letter to Rev. John Fisher (23 October 1821), from John Constable's Correspondence, part 6, pp. 76-78
Dedham Mill (1820)
  • I am most anxious to get into my London painting-room, for I do not consider myself at work unless I am before a six-foot canvas. I have done a good deal of skying for I am determined to conquer all difficulties, and that among the rest.
    • Letter to Rev. John Fisher (23 October 1821), as quoted in Richard Friedenthal, Letters of the great artists – from Blake to Pollock (Thames and Hudson, London, 1963), p. 41
  • That landscape painter who does not make his skies a very material part of his composition, neglects to avail himself of one of his greatest aids. Sir Joshua Reynolds speaking of the "Landscape" of Titian & Salvator & Claude says 'Even their skies seem to sympathise with the Subject.' I have often been advised to consider my sky as a 'hite Sheet thrown behind the Objects'. Certainly, if the sky is 'obtrusive,' (as mine are) it is bad, but if they are 'evaded' (as mine are not) it is worse, they must and always shall with me make an effectual part of the composition. It will be difficult to name a class of landscape in which the sky is not the 'key note,' the 'standard of Scale' and the chief 'Organ of sentiment.' You may conceive, then, what a "white sheet" would do for me, impressed as I am with these notions.
    • Letter to Rev. John Fisher (23 October 1821), as quoted in Richard Friedenthal, Letters of the great artists – from Blake to Pollock (Thames and Hudson, London, 1963), p. 42
  • The sky is the 'source of light' in nature, and governs every thing. Even our common observations on the weather of every day, are suggested by them, but it does not occur to us. Their difficulty in painting both as to composition and execution is very great, because, with all their brilliancy and consequence, they ought not to come forward, or be hardly thought about in a picture... I know very well what I am about, and that my skies have not been neglected, though they have often failed in execution, no doubt, from an over-anxiety about them, which will alone destroy that easy appearance which nature always has in all her movements.
    • Letter to Rev. John Fisher (23 October 1821), as quoted in Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable (Tate Gallery Publications, London, 1993), p. 229 and also in Richard Friedenthal, Letters of the great artists – from Blake to Pollock (Thames and Hudson, London, 1963), p. 42
  • How sweet and beautifull is every place & I visit my old Haunts with renewed delight... nothing can exceed the beautiful green of the meadows which are beginning to fill with butter Cups — & various flowers — the birds are singing from morning trill night but most of all the Sky larks — How delightfull is the Country.
    • Letter to his wife, Maria (20 April 1821); as quoted in Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable (Tate Gallery Publications, London, 1993), p. 28
  • A sketch will not serve more than one state of mind & will not serve to drink at again & again — in a sketch there is nothing but the one state of mind — that which you were in at the time.
    • Letter to Rev. John Fisher (3 November 1823), from John Constable's Correspondence, ed. R.B. Beckett (Ipswich, Suffolk Records Society, 1962-1970), part 6, pp. 142-143
  • They [French critics of the Paris Salon of 1824, where his painting 'the Hay Wain' received a gold medal] are very amusing and acute — but very shallow and feeble. Thus one — after saying: "'it is but justice to admire the truth — 'the color' — and 'general vivacity' & richness —" – yet they want the objects more formed and defined &c, and say they are like the rich preludes in musick, and the full harmonious warblings of the Aeolian lyre, which means 'nothing,' and they call them orations — and harangues — and high-flown conversations affecting a careless ease — &c &v &c - Is not some of this 'blame' the highest 'praise' – what is poetry? – What is Coleridge's Ancient Mariner (the very best modern poem) but something like this?
    • Letter to Rev. John Fisher, 1824, as quoted in Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable, (Tate Gallery Publications, London, 1993), p. 205
  • My picture [A Boat Passing a Lock, 1823-6] is liked at the [Royal] Academy, indeed it forms a decided feature and its light can not be put out. Because it is the light of nature — the Mother of all that is valuable in poetry — painting or anything else... my execution annoys most of them and all the scholastic ones – perhaps the scarifies I make for 'lightness' and 'brightness' is too much but these things are the essence of Landscape.
    • Letter to Rev. John Fisher, 1824, as quoted in Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable (Tate Gallery Publications, London, 1993), p. 288
  • Our little drawing Room commands a view unequalled in Europe — from Westminster Abbey to Gravesend — the dome of St Paul's in the Air — realizes Michael Angelo's Idea on seeing that of the Pantheon — 'I will build such a thing in the Sky.'
    • Letter to Rev. John Fisher (26 August 1827); as quoted in Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable (Tate Gallery Publications, London, 1993), p. 473
  • It is always my endeavour however in making a picture that it should be without a companion in the world. At least such should be a painters ambition.
    • Letter to a client, Mr Carpenter (23 July 1828), as quoted in Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable (Tate Gallery Publications, London, 1993), p. 291
  • I had on Friday a long visit from Mr. --- alone; but my pictures do not come into his rules of whims of the art, and he said I had "lost my way." I told him that I had, perhaps other notions of art than picture admirers have in general. I looked on pictures as 'things to be avoided,' connoisseurs looked on them as things to be 'mitated'; and that, too, with such a defence and humbleness of submission, amounting to a total prostration of mind and original feeling, as must serve only to fill the world with abortions... But he was very agreeable, and endured the visit, I trust, without the usual courtesies of life being violated. What a sad thing it is that his lovely art is 'so wrested to its own destruction!' Used only to blind our eyes, and to prevent us from seeing the sub shine — the fields bloom — the tree blossom — and from hearing the foliage rustle; while old — black — rubbed out and dirty canvases take the place of God's own works.
    • Letter to Rev. John Fisher (2 April 1833), as quoted in Richard Friedenthal, Letters of the great artists – from Blake to Pollock (Thames and Hudson, London, 1963), p. 45
  • My friend Bonner has just set off to Charlotte Street to pack your picture (an old painting) and forward it; it is a beautiful representation of a summer’s evening; calm, warm and delicious; the colour on the man’s face is perfect sunshine. The liquid pencil of this school is replete with a beauty peculiar to itself. Nevertheless, I don’t believe they had any 'nostrums,' but plain linseed oil; 'honest linseed' as old Wilson called it. But it is always right to remember that the ordinary painters of that day used, as now, the same vehicle as their betters, and also that their works have all received the hardening and enamelling effects of time, so that we must not judge of originality by these signs always.
    • Letter to Rev. John Fisher (20 December 1833), as quoted in Richard Friedenthal, Letters of the great artists – from Blake to Pollock (Thames and Hudson, London, 1963), pp. 45-46
Brighton Beach (1824)
  • I ought to respect myself for my friends' sake, and my children's. It is time, at fifty-six, to begin, at least, to know oneself, — and I do know what I am not, and your regard for me has at least awakened me to believe in the possibility that I may yet make some impression with my "light" — my "dews" — my "breezes" — my bloom and freshness, — no one of which qualities has yet been perfected on the canvas of any painter in the world.
    • Letter to C.R. Leslie (March 1833), from The Letters of John Constable, R.A. to C. R. Leslie, R.A. 1826-1837 (Constable & Co., 1931), p. 104
Hadleigh Castle, study (1829)
  • My canvas soothes me into forgetfulness of the scene of turmoil and folly — and worse — of the scene around me. Every gleam of sunshine is blighted to me in the art at least. Can it therefore be wondered at that I paint continual storms? "Tempest o'er tempest roll'd" — still the "darkness" is majestic.
    • Letter to C.R. Leslie (1834), John Constable's Correspondence, ed. R.B. Beckett, (Ipswich, Suffolk Records Society, 1962-1970), vol. 3, p. 122; also quoted in Hugh Honour, Romanticism (Westview Press, 1979, ISBN 0-064-30089-7), ch. 3, p. 91
  • I am glad you encouraged me with the 'Stoke' [his painting 'Stoke-by-Nayland', circa 1835] What say you to a summer morning? July or August, at eight or nine o’clock, after a slight shower during the night, to enhance the dews in the shadowed part of the picture, under 'Hedge row elms and hillocks green.' Then the plough, cart, horse, gate, cows, donkey, &c. are all good paintable material for the foreground, and the size of the canvas sufficient to try one’s strength, and keep one at full collar.
    • Letter to William Purton (6 February 1836), as quoted in Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable (Tate Gallery Publications, London, 1993), p. 380


  • We must bear in recollection that the sentiment of the picture is that of solemnity, not gaiety & nothing garish, but the contrary — yet it must be bright, clear, alive fresh, and all the front seen.
    • Letter to David Lucas (15 February 1836), on the mezzo print of the 'Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows'; as quoted in Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable (Tate Gallery Publications, London, 1993), p. 37


  • He seems to paint with tinted steam, so evanescent, and so airy.
    • Letter to his brother George, 1836, referring to J M W Turner

History of Landscape LecturesEdit

  • I am anxious that the world should be inclined to look to painters for information about painting. I hope to show that ours is a regularly taught profession; that it is scientific as well as poetic; that imagination alone never did, and never can, produce works that are to stand by a comparison with realities.
    • "The History of Landscape Painting," first lecture, Royal Institution (26 May 1836), from notes taken by C.R. Leslie
The Cornfield (1826)
  • We see nothing truly till we understand it.
    • "The History of Landscape Painting," third lecture, Royal Institution (9 June 1836)
  • Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then, may not a landscape be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but experiments?
    • "The History of Landscape Painting," fourth lecture, Royal Institution (16 June 1836), from John Constable's Discourses, ed. R.B. Beckett, (Ipswich, Suffolk Records Society, 1970), p. 69.
  • The attempt to revive styles that have existed in former ages, may for a time appear to be successful, but experience may now surely teach us its impossibility. I might put on a suit of Claude Lorraine's clothes and walk into the street, and the many who knew Claude but slightly would pull off their hats to me, but I should at last meet with some one, more intimately acquainted with him, who would expose me to the contempt I merited.

    It is thus in all the fine arts. A new Gothic building, or a new missal, is in reality little less absurd than a new ruin.

    • Lecture, Literary and Scientific Institution, Hampstead, (25 July 1836), from notes taken by C.R. Leslie
Wivenhoe Park, Essex (1816)
  • The first impression and a natural one is, that the fine arts have risen or declined in proportion as patronage has been given to them or withdrawn, but it will be found that there has often been more money lavished on them in their worst periods than in their best, and that the highest honours have frequently been bestowed on artists whose names are scarcely now known.
    • Lecture, Literary and Scientific Institution, Hampstead, (25 July 1836), from notes taken by C.R. Leslie
  • The climax of absurdity to which the art may be carried, when led away from nature by fashion, may be best seen in the works of Boucher... His landscape, of which he was evidently fond, is pastoral; and such pastorality! the pastoral of the Opera house.
    • Notes of Six Lectures on Landscape Painting (1836), from C.R. Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable (1843), p. 343
  • Many of my Hamptstead friends may remember this 'young lady' [an ash tree] at the entrance to the village. Her fate was distressing, for it is scarcely too much to say that she died of a broken heart. I made this drawing [Study of Trees, pencil on paper, circa 1821] when she was in full health and beauty; on passing some times afterwards, I saw, to my grief, that a wretched board had been nailed to her side, on which was written in large letters: 'All vagrants and beggars will be dealt with according to law.' The tree seemed to have felt the disgrace, for even then some of the top branches had withered. Two long spike nails had been driven far into her side. In another year one half became paralysed, and not long after the other shared the same fate, and this beautiful creature was cut down to a stump, just high enough to hold the board.
    • Lecture, given at Hamptstead (July 1836), as quoted in Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Tate Gallery Publications, Constable, (London 1993), p. 391


OtherEdit

  • There is nothing ugly; I never saw an ugly thing in my life: for let the form of an object be what it may, — light, shade, and perspective will always make it beautiful.
    • Quoted in C. R. Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, Composed Chiefly of His Letters (1843), (Phaidon, London, 1951), p. 280
    • Reply "to a lady who, looking at an engraving of a house, called it an ugly thing"
  • A self-taught painter is one taught by a very ignorant person.
    • Quoted in The Quarterly Review vol. 119 (1866), p. 292.
The Hay Wain (1821)


  • Because he attempted to tell (his painting ['The Jewish Cemetery'] that which is outside the reach of art... there are ruins to indicate old age, a stream to signify the course of life, and rocks and precipices to shadow forth its dangers. But how are we to discover all this?
    • Quoted in Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable (Tate Gallery Publications, London, 1993), p. 304
Seascape Study with Rain Clouds (1827)
  • The world is wide; no two days are alike, nor even two hours; neither were there ever two leaves of a tree alike since the creation of the world.
    • Quoted in C. R. Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, Composed Chiefly of His Letters (1843) (Phaidon, London, 1951) p. 273
  • Only think that I am now writing in a room full of Claudes... almost of the summit of my earthly ambitions.
    • As quoted in Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable (Tate Gallery Publications, London, 1993), p. 512
  • It is much to my advantage that several of my pictures should be seen together, as it displays to advantage their varieties of conception and also of execution, and what they gain by the mellowing hand of time which should never be forced or anticipated. Thus my pictures when first coming forth have a comparative harshness which at the time acts to my disadvantage.
    • Quoted in Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable (Tate Gallery Publications, London, 1993), p. 516
  • My observations on clouds and skies are on scraps and bits of paper, and I have never yet put them together so as to form a lecture, which I shall do.. ..next summer. (1836)
    • Quoted in Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable, (Tate Gallery Publications, London, 1993), p. 37
  • He [the artist] ought to have 'these powerful organs of expression' — colour and chiaroscuro — entirely at his command, that he may use them in every possible form, as well as that he may do with the most perfect freedom; therefore, whether he wishes to make the subject of a joyous, solemn, or meditative character, by flinging over it the cheerful aspect which the sun bestows, by a proper disposition of shade, or by the appearances that beautify its arising or its setting, a true "General Effect" should never be lost sight of.
    • Text for the 'Old Sarum', print in 'English Landscape' 1835/36, as quoted in Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable (Tate Gallery Publications, London, 1993), p. 380
  • This appearance of the Evening was... just after a very heavy rain — more rain in the night and very — [?light] wind which continued all the — day following while making – this sketch observed the Moon easing – very beautifully... [in the] due East over the — heavy clouds from which the late showers – had fallen.
    • Inscription: 12 September, 1821, written on the back of 'Hampstead Heath, Sun setting over Harrow,' sketch in oil on paper; as quoted in Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable (Tate Gallery Publications, London. 1993), p. 221
  • I have likewise made many 'skies' and effects — for I wish it could be said of me as Fuselli says of Rembrandt, 'he followed nature in her calmest abodes and could pluck a flower on every hedge — yet he was born to cast a steadfast eye on the bolder phenomena of nature'... We have had noble clouds & effects of light & dark & color.
    • Remark to Rev. John Fisher in 1821 on his oil-sketches of stormy weather, as quoted in Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable (Tate Gallery Publications, London 1993), p. 222


  • Sept. 6 th, 1822, looking S.E. — 12 to 1 o’clock, fresh and bright, between showers — much the look of rain all the morning, but very fine and grand all the afternoon and evening.
    • Inscription a the back of a cloud study (6 September 1822), as quoted in Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable (Tate Gallery Publications, London, 1993), p. 233

About John ConstableEdit

The Admiral's House, Hampstead (1822)
  • Constable himself knew the value of such studies, for he rarely parted with them. He used to say of his studies and pictures that he had no objection to part with the corn, but not with the field that grew it.
    • Richard and Samuel Redgrave, A Century of Painters of the English School (1866), vol. II
  • Without any doubt the great works of Constable were done at the point when his desire to be a "natural" painter and his need to express his restless, passionate character overlap. Through his violence of feeling, concealed under a conventional exterior, he was able to revolutionise our own feelings about our surroundings. The conviction that open spaces and areas of rural scenery must be saved for the refreshment of our spirits owes more to Constable than to any other artist. While Turner, with greater gifts, was transforming the "beauty spots" of Europe, Constable was teaching us all to realise that our own countryside could be taken exactly as it is, and and yet become more precious to us.
    • Kenneth Clark, The Romantic Rebellion (Harper & Row, 1973, ISBN 06-10802-9), ch. 11: Constable (p. 283)

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Last modified on 16 April 2014, at 22:32