Constable’s ambition, like Claude Lorrain (1600–82) in the seventeenth century, was to elevate landscape to the status of history painting. Since the Baroque era, history painters had prepared their finished work with oil sketches, and Constable did the same, using sketches made on the spot as a direct source for his larger works, which he called “six footers.” What was exceptional was his making, in the studio, full-scale preparatory sketches for his Royal Academy entries. His great gift, like Corot (1796 – 1875) was to translate the freshness of his sketches into his big finished canvases with minimal dilution. His paintings of “England’s green and pleasant land” may have socio-political overtones: the well-ordered countryside and prosperous landed estates like Wivenhoe Park, all flourishing under benign constitutional rule, are like a reproach to the despotic turmoil of Napoleonic Europe.
Constable’s recognition at home was sluggish but he won a gold medal at the Paris salon of 1824, a period of Anglomania in France, and exercised a decisive influence on the Barbizon school. His impact on Impressionism was less direct but a painting like Weymouth Bay (National Gallery, London) is as advanced an essay in the plein air look as Monet’s early Beach at Saint Adresse in Fort Worth. Constable’s innovations were not founded on a tabula rasa. His ever-changing light and shifting clouds descend from the seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painter Jacob van Ruisdael (1628–82) and Constable’s famous cloud studies were anticipated by previous artists, especially the sketches of the French neo-classical painter Valenciennes (1750–1819). The reassuring calm of his most iconic painting the Haywain (National Gallery, London) is rooted in Claude whom he so much admired. In his late landscapes, Hadleigh Castle for example, he introduces a looser technique, closer to the preparatory sketch. Constable excelled as a watercolorist, notably in his visionary late View of Stonehenge. The mezzotints after his work by George Lucas preserve much of the atmosphere of the originals.