John Constable

A British Romantic painter, Constable painted many scenes of the Suffolk countryside. A mill-owner's son, he especially loved to paint local waterways. For Constable, very much unlike the British painters who came before him, the landscape was not the mere background of the painting; it was the star of the show. Painters at the Royal Academy looked down on landscapes for generations, even if there was demand for them, as wealthy Brits were buying up landscapes by Salvator Rosa, Karel Dujardin, Nicholas Poussin and Claude Lorrain on their Grand Tours of Continental Europe. But Constable offered something different: a uniquely British, not Italianate, landscape. 

So how do you spot a Constable? Watch out for paintings at eye-level perspective, with some combination of a river in the foreground, often being forded by oxen or horses, with Salisbury Cathedral in the background. (Rainbows are optional.) This painting happens to have all those things in one neat package!

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831) by John Constable. National Museum Wales (Cardiff, UK).

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831) by John Constable. National Museum Wales (Cardiff, UK).

This painting happens to have all those things in one neat package!

Also look for small human figures, if any at all, in his paintings. He is well-known for his watercolors as well as his oils. He also employed a palette knife in his later career on snow and clouds, giving his landscapes a less mannered feel, putting him on the cutting edge of art (palette knife, cutting edge - get it?!). Have a gander:

Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (Rainstorm over the Sea) (1824-1828) by John Constable. Royal Academy of Arts (London, UK)

Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (Rainstorm over the Sea) (1824-1828) by John Constable. Royal Academy of Arts (London, UK)

In paintings such as Seascape Study, Constable shifted from Gainsboroughesque, idyllic views of the Suffolk countryside to proto-Impressionist scenes of sea and sky, stepping away from nostalgia for a rural England that was rapidly disappearing in the Industrial Age. He was, just the same, moving away from the centuries-long influence of Dutch Golden Age landscapes into something entirely new - the seeds of modern art. The sudden transition may have found its root in Constable's rivalry with J. M. W. Turner, the master of atmosphere. But that's for another time!