Art History  •  Artworks under the lens

The Cornfield and John Constable’s Uniquely British Landscapes

the cornfield

The Cornfield is a fine example of John Constable’s landscape paintings. In exquisite detail, it portrays a boy and his dog herding sheep down a rustic country road, as the boy stops to drink from a stream. Singulart will be exploring John Constable’s signature art style, and discussing how it is portrayed in The Cornfield

John Constable’s Landscape Paintings 

Constable said “I should paint my own places best”, and it was a statement that certainly influenced his art throughout his life. He painted, many landscapes over his career such as The Hay Wain, Hadleigh Castle, and Salisbury Cathedral. Constable’s landscapes are considered some of the first from the Romantic period who drew inspiration directly from nature, rather than an idealized, emotional portrayal. His attention to detail was so specific, and so scientific, that he would spend hours studying the clouds in the sky to ensure he could paint them with the greatest accuracy. Although he shared some ideals with Impressionists – namely, evoking emotion through an artwork and painting en plein air – his works recalled more nostalgic memories, and he took certain artistic liberties in order to portray the scenes as he recalled them from his youth.

John Constable, author of the Cornfield
John Constable

At a time when brushstrokes were ideally small and refined, Constable rebelled against this line of thought with canvases that were textured with a range of surfaces and marks. He believed this was one way he could reflect the different textures he saw in nature. Not just confining himself to a paintbrush, he also used palette knives to create different textures in his paintings. He was also known for using a technique that became known as “Constable’s snow”, described by art historian Sarah Cove as “[the] finishing technique Constable developed to depict fleeting effects of light, movement and texture.” Constable stated he used the technique in an attempt to portray the “dewy freshness” he wanted to show in his landscapes. 

The Cornfield 

John Constable, The Cornfield, 1826
John Constable, The Cornfield, 1826

Constable hoped that The Cornfield would sell quickly, remarking in a letter to a friend that “It has certainly got a little more eye-salve than I usually condescend to give them.” It was indeed well-received when it was first exhibited, though it failed to find a buyer. The painting depicts a tranquil trail leading to a cornfield, with a dog herding sheep along the road. To the left of the painting we can see a young boy drinking from the stream – Constable had originally called the artwork The Drinking Boy.

The colors in The Cornfield are similar to the natural, calming palette used by Constable in the majority of his work, with the exception being the splash of bright red used for the boy’s coat that draws the viewer’s eye to the left of the piece. Green is the dominant color used in the piece, creating a serene, lush landscape. 

While it is generally believed that The Cornfield portrays a field on the Essex-Suffolk border, Fen Lane being the most likely setting, though it is suggested that Constable took inspiration from a number of different landscapes. The church in the background, for example, did not exist in this spot, but was added into the painting by Constable to enhance the sedate, peaceful feelings provoked by the piece. Although he may have taken certain artistic license with the piece, Constable still used his renowned attention to detail, consulting with naturalist Henry Philips to ensure that the plants he painted in The Cornfield were all accurate for the setting and time period. 

The painting was displayed alongside these lines from Summer by James Thomson: “A fresher gale begins to wave the woods and stir the streams / Sweeping with shadowy gusts the fields of corn”. The Cornfield is now displayed in London’s National Gallery. 

Browse artworks by similar artists in Singulart’s Inspired by John Constable collection.

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