John Constable (1776-1837) is one of the great English landscape painters of the 19th century. The son of an East Bergholt (Suffolk) miller and landowner, he grew up in the valley of the Stour River, the scene of many of his greatest paintings. Constable went on his first sketching tour (of Norfolk) in 1794. His mother arranged a meeting with the art patron Sir George Beaumont (1753-1827, who befriended J.R. Cozens in his last years), and through Beaumont he encountered works by Thomas Gainsborough, Thomas Girtin, and Dutch landscape artists, all strong influences on his style. Constable continued working in the family business until 1798, when he finally won his father's consent to move to London to pursue art. He enrolled in the Royal Academy schools in 1800 and, learning quickly, exhibited his first works in 1802. He made a tour of Westmorland and Cumberland in 1806, sketching in pencil, ink wash and occasional watercolors with many notes on light and atmosphere; and this was the practice he followed over the next decade, patiently and independently refining his art. He met Maria Bicknell in 1811 and began a long courtship, marrying her in 1816 after overcoming her family's long opposition. In 1819, after two unsuccessful attempts, he was elected to the Royal Academy by a one vote margin. He settled in Hampstead in 1820, just north of London's dirt and smoke, in part to aid his wife's weak health. She bore him six children before she died of tuberculosis in 1828. Constable began painting more frequently in watercolors, producing larger and more finished works, as well as many "blot paintings" after the manner of Alexander Cozens. He died in his Somerset House, at age 60.

Many of Constable's sketches capture unusual effects of lighting (such as a double rainbow) or weather over the panorama of London he enjoyed from the terrace or back window of his home in Hampstead. The windmills where Constable worked as a youth depended on the wind to do their work, which made millers acute observers of the inland skies and the subtle changes in wind or clouds that signaled changes in weather. Study of Clouds (1830, 19x23cm) records the skies over London after a passing storm; the low dark rainclouds have been parted by the wind to reveal pale high clouds glowing with the light of late afternoon. Later in life (1821), Constable wrote that "It will be difficult to name a class of landscape in which the sky is not the keynote, the standard of scale, and the chief organ of sentiment ... the sky is the source of light in nature, and governs everything." The many studies he painted of the sky attest to his continual interest in the drama that sky could impart to a painting.

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Many of Constable's watercolor sketches were probably finished indoors, based on notes and chalk drawings made in the field (a method also used by J.M.W. Turner). These were a painter's working documents, quick studies of composition or color, preparation for Constable's works in oil, and were not known until after his death. Cottages on High Ground (c.1833, 13x21cm) is a sketch that epitomizes his fluid, rapid notation of landscape. All the forms are painted rapidly and coarsely, without preliminary pencil drawing, suggesting that this notebook sized painting was completed in the field. Constable builds up the image through a combination of washes (the sky), brushstrokes (the trees), scrubbing (foreground textures), blotting (sky again), and scraping out (along the lefthand tree trunk). The resemblance with his sky study is remarkable; this is almost a storm of green and yellow. The distant cottages are hidden behind trees, placing the emphasis on the near tree and its shadow across the grass. The fresh delight of the drawing may owe something to the style of David Cox, whose sketches were frequently exhibited in London, but Constable's rapid, accurate brushwork evolved gradually over the years, and may actually be due to his many studies using the "blot painting" technique of Alexander Cozens, whose treatise on paintings Constable had carefully studied, even to copying out sections in his notebooks.

Constable's painting of Stonehenge (1835, 39x59cm) is perhaps the largest and most finished watercolor that he ever made; it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1836. Constable proudly called it "a beautiful drawing" and based it on many careful pencil sketches. He uses his favorite device of placing a light colored foreground against a dark sky, where it dominates the mood of the image. The double rainbow was fascinating to Constable and appears in cloud studies made at Hampstead. The sky is painted roughly, in a manner that suggests both gusting winds and ragged remnants of rain high in the sky, and contributes to a sense of keen natural observation without slavish copying of natural effects. Unfortunately the rainbow colors have faded somewhat, but even in the original they were light valued and pure tints that attempted to capture the rainbow's shining light. With its combination of Newton's rainbow and the mysterious ancient stones, the painting reflects Constable's unique ability to combine scientific knowledge and keen observation with poetry and originality — the crux of his style that the Impressionists admired. Constable was never a painter of facts: for him the eyes were secondary, "it is the soul that sees."

The standard reference for Constable's watercolors is the exhibition catalog Constable: Landscape Watercolors and Drawings by Ian Fleming-Williams (Tate Gallery, 1976). A good general study is Constable by Leslie Parris & Ian Fleming-Williams (Tate Gallery, 1991). Martin Hardie's chapter on Constable in Water-Colour Painting in Britain: II. The Romantic Period (Batsford, 1968) provides an insightful summary of his work. A small selection of the later paintings, with commentary, is available in The Great Age of British Watercolors by Andrew Wilton and Anne Lyles (Prestel, 1997).