Progression of Art
This was one of Constable's first major paintings, created when he was 26. Painted in the brief hiatus between the end of the French revolutionary wars and the beginning of the Napoleonic wars the following year, the tranquillity of the image belies the wider political turmoil. Whilst the techniques that were to serve Constable so well in his later career are not yet fully developed the painting already demonstrates his commitment to the close observation of nature and this can be seen in the detailed rendering of the trees and sky.
The eye is led across the painting from the foreground along the route of the river to the distant tower of Dedham church, which although small, forms a clear focal point for the painting. The trees on either side of the canvas form a frame to the central part of the image presenting the view in the form of a smaller cameo and further serves to focus the eye on a building that would have been a landmark of Constable's childhood.
The composition with the trees in the foreground framing the image to the right closely mirrors the arrangement of Lorrain's work Hagar and the Angel (1646) and it is likely that Constable was inspired by the piece that played a formative role in his early art appreciation and education.
26 years later Constable created a second image of the same view called The Vale of Dedham (1828), although very similar in appearance there are a number of small differences that separate the two, particularly the inclusion of figures in the later painting.
oil on canvas - Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Painted in July 1816 around three months before their marriage, Constable kept this portrait of his fiancée with him, writing to her that "I would not be without your portrait for the world the sight of it soon calms my spirit under all trouble and it is always the first thing I see in the morning and the last at night". The portrait was said to be a remarkably good likeness and the fine and detailed finish of Maria's face contrasts with the looser brushstrokes which make up the background and her blouse.
Whilst Constable created over 100 portraits in his career, most were painted out of financial necessity rather than a love of the genre. Despite this, many are refreshingly honest in their depictions and there is a real sense of character and personality in the images that he created and he did not sanitize quirks of appearance to bring images in line with contemporary beauty standards. This portrait has a particular sensitivity and warmth to it and this must be attributed to his intimate relationship with the sitter.
Parallels can be drawn between this image and many of his other portraits both in the use of similarly colored, neutral backgrounds and the composition of the sitters. His representation of faces was always closely detailed but his approach to the sitter's clothes seems to vary with his relationship to the individual concerned. Some garments are closely rendered whilst others are suggested through much freer brushstrokes as in this portrait, this can be attributed to the commission basis of his work and paintings for patrons were likely to be more highly finished.
oil on canvas - Tate Britain, London
The White Horse
The White Horse, originally titled A Scene on the River Stour was the first of Constable's large canvases (6'x4') known as the six-footers. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1819 and its critical success paved the way for Constable to be elected with the title of an Associate the same year. To create canvases of this magnitude, Constable first made sketches of the scene from life, unusually he then crafted these into a full-size oil sketch before creating the final painting.
In the image Constable depicts a normal scene of rural life, neither pitying or celebrating the working lives of those he painted, merely presenting them as he saw them. There is an underlying tenacity to the image, both in the figures of the bargemen straining against their poles but also in that Constable shows the men continuing a centuries old way of life despite the increasing threat of industrialization. The determination of the workers is reflected in the image of the tree to the right of centre clinging precariously but successfully to the waterlogged bank.
In the image, as with much of Constable's work, the vegetation is presented in scientific detail with each species clearly identifiable from its differing shape, color, and area of growth. Constable used a huge palette of different greens in his works and this delineation of species is particularly prominent in this painting giving the image a verdancy which reflects the season and time of day.
oil on canvas - The Frick Collection, New York
The Hay Wain
The Hay Wain is now one of the most celebrated and widely known of Constable's works, although when it was first exhibited it was considered unremarkable. In it he depicts the River Stour which divides the Counties of Suffolk and Essex. Willy Lott's cottage stands to the left of the image and this building is also visible on The White Horse (1819). It is possible that the cart is standing in the water to ensure that the wooden wheels didn't shrink in the sun, loosening their metal rims.
The image radiates optimism and serenity and this is conveyed through the color palette. The blue of the sky is reflected in the cool tones of the water and the terracotta of the house is highlighted in the red of the horse's harness. The whole image is framed by the greens and yellows of the vegetation and the meadow runs off the right of the canvas opening up the space to the viewer. The curve of the river in the foreground draws the eye away from the mass of the trees towards the Hay Wain itself which becomes the focal point of the image. Constable utilizes his distinctive flecks of white paint on the water in the foreground to portray the effects of the noon sunshine reflecting on the river.
Constable has constructed the painting so that the viewer stands on the near bank of the river and the size of the image (it was another six-footer) in conjunction with the carefully rendered fall of light enables the viewer to feel that they could enter the scene. The image highlights the glory of nature without resorting to artifice or exaggeration and reflects Constable's determination to paint the truth of what he saw. In doing this the scene is presented with an absolute sincerity which is immediately apparent to the viewer.
oil on canvas - National Gallery, London
Rainstorm over the sea
After 1822 Constable moved away from strict documentary accuracy and his paint surfaces become rougher and more expressive. This oil sketch of Brighton Beach is a quickly painted image that captures the turbulent feel of the advancing storm rather than a detailed study. Whilst the sky and sea are less closely rendered than in his display canvases the scene is easily identifiable and it is clear that it represents a single moment in time as the storm converges. In appearance and subject matter it can be compared to work by Turner such as Steamer in a Snowstorm (1842) in which the impact of the elements is the focus of the image.
The image demonstrates Constable's skill at portraying the effects of changes in weather, light, and time of day. The impact that this image and others like it had on later artists is noted by the painter's biographer Mark Evans in John Constable - The Making of a Master, in which he states that Constable's "oil sketches have been celebrated since the 1890s as precursors of Impressionism, modernism and photographic composition".
Although Constable never intended to exhibit his sketches, producing them for his own study and the development of more 'finished' canvases, they make up an important part of his body of work. They are now considered some of his most 'modern' and interesting pieces in that they made an even more radical and pioneering break from the traditions of academic art than the paintings he did display.
Oil on paper laid on canvas - Royal Academy of Arts, London
Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows
Constable started painting Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows shortly after the death of his wife and, although exhibited in 1831, he continued to work on it until his death in 1837. The image is the last of his large six foot canvases and Constable believed that one day it would probably be considered his greatest picture. The image is reflective of the turmoil Constable felt in this period of mourning and this is seen in the religious subject matter, the violent sky and the addition of the rainbow which would be a meteorological impossibility given the other weather conditions.
The image of the rainbow appears in several of Constable's other paintings including Landscape with a Double Rainbow (1821) and Stonehenge (1835) and it was generally used as a symbol of hope within the Romantic movement as a phenomenon that was both beautiful and fleeting. Constable himself wrote that "Nature in all the varied aspects of her beauty exhibits no feature more lovely nor any that awakens a more soothing reflection than the rainbow". In this instance the rainbow is considered to be a signifier of spiritual hope - it reaches the ground at Leadenhall the home of Bishop John Fisher who encouraged Constable to paint the scene and it may also indicate gratitude towards his friend for his support in the aftermath of his wife's death.
The inclusion of the rainbow marks a departure in Constable's attempts for realism and this is articulated by contemporary critic, Mark Hudson when he states that, Constable "heightens the drama in the blustery sky, throwing a rainbow over the image in a mystical fusing of past and present that belies the sense of Constable as a mere dour observer of empirical reality." Former Tate curator Leslie Parris has suggested that this symbolism may be taken further and that the storm clouds over the Cathedral represent the troubles experienced by the Anglican Church following the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829.
Oil on canvas - Tate Britain, London