John Constable, R.A. (East Bergholt 1776-1837 London)
John Constable, R.A. (East Bergholt 1776-1837 London)

A study for The White Horse

John Constable, R.A. (East Bergholt 1776-1837 London)
A study for The White Horse
oil on board
9 ¾ x 12 3/8 in. (24.5 x 31.3 cm.)
(Possibly) Isabel Constable (1822-1888), the artist’s daughter, and by inheritance to,
Cyril Benson Constable (1870-1905), London; Christie’s, London, 23 June 1894, lot 110 (54 gns. to the following).
with Arthur Tooth, London.
Alexander Young, by 1902.
Mary Stuart Hamilton, Lady Tollemache (c. 1852-1939), by 1907, and by inheritance to,
Lt. Col. The Rt. Hon. Denis Plantagenet Tollemache (1884-1942).
Anonymous sale; Sotheby’s, London, 24 November 1965, lot 150.
C.J. Holmes, Constable and his Influence on Landscape Paintings, London, 1902, pp. 88 and 244.
R. Hoozee, L’opera completa di Constable, Milan, 1979, p. 105, no. 190, illustrated.
G. Reynolds, The Later Paintings and Drawings by John Constable, New Haven and London, 1984, I, p. 30-1, no. 19.4; II, pl. 71.
J. Hayes, British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries, Cambridge, 1992, pp. 33 and 36, fig. 3.
A. Lyles, ed., Constable: The Great Landscapes, exhibition catalogue, London and Washington, 2006, p. 134.
London, Tate Gallery, Constable, 18 February-25 April 1976, no. 165.

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Imogen Jones
Imogen Jones

Lot Essay

This fresh and vivid sketch was executed circa 1817, probably en plein air, and is a study for one of Constable’s most famous and important paintings: The White Horse in The Frick Collection, New York. The finished picture, exhibited in 1819, was the first of Constable’s celebrated ‘six-footers’, the pictures which defined his artistic maturity, and secured both his professional reputation and enduring popularity. C.R. Leslie, Constable’s friend and first biographer, recognised the vital place the picture held in the artist’s career, stating that it was ‘on many accounts the most important picture to Constable he ever painted’ (C.R. Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, London, 1843, J. Mayne, ed., London, 1951, p. 76).

The eleven large-scale canvases produced by Constable between 1819 and 1837 can be divided into two distinct groups: the first, a series of six works, which were exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1819 and 1825, all focused on the Stour Valley and include notable works such as The White Horse and The Hay Wain (1821; London, National Gallery). The second group was slightly less cohesive and were worked on between 1827 and 1837, tackling subjects beyond the borders of Constable’s native Suffolk, including Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831; London, Tate Britain; acquired in 2013 in partnership with Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales, Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service, National Galleries of Scotland, and The Salisbury Museum) and The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (1832; New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection). The painter was meticulous in the planning of these large-scale works, with each relying on a combination of initial plein air pencil drawings, oil sketches and compositional studies, which were later worked up and combined into a final full-scale oil sketch.

This study is one of the earliest manifestations of what would become Constable’s first six-foot canvas. Graham Reynolds suggests that it was painted in the early autumn of 1817, during a period in which the painter produced a number of sketches in oil and pencil of his beloved Suffolk countryside (op. cit.). Joseph Farington noted meeting with the painter on 11 November 1817 in his diary, recording that Constable: ‘told [him] he had passed 10 weeks at Bergholt in Suffolk with his friends, & painted many studies’; and later noting that the painter and Academician, William Redmore Bigg, had spoken: ‘favourably of Constable’s oil sketches done in the summer’ (J. Farington, The Farington Diary, J. Grieg, ed., New York, 1923, VIII, p. 149).

This small study for The White Horse shows a view from the south bank of the Stour, looking back across the river just below Flatford Mill. Across the water, the peaked white gables of Willy Lott’s cottage (which Constable painted on numerous occasions and would later be immortalised in The Hay Wain) can be seen beyond a group of trees and bushes, with a rustic, thatched boat shed extending a little way into the water in front. The composition, on the whole, follows closely that which the painter would eventually use in his 1819 canvas, though the final painting was extended to include an additional area at the right of the composition with cattle grazing and watering, and the top extended to include more sky. Another sketch of the left section of the composition (fig. 1; Private collection, Christie’s, London, 30 November 2000, lot 3) takes a vertical format, again showing Willy Lott’s cottage beyond the trees with the boat house before it, working up, in oil, a pencil sketch that the painter had made in a sketchbook of 1814 (fig. 2; London, Victoria & Albert Museum). A pencil study of the boat shed (private collection; G. Reynolds, op. cit., no. 19.5), demonstrates the precision with which Constable approached the depiction of each individual element and the design as a whole. The eponymous white horse, and the barge on which it stands patiently, probably originated from a separate sketch made by Constable, since this key motif does not appear in either of the small oil sketches discussed. This would not have been uncommon in Constable’s working method, since he frequently made studies in his sketchbooks or small oils, which he would later incorporate into his finished paintings. A small oil sketch of this precise motif was in fact discovered recently in a private collection (A. Lyles, ed., op. cit., p. 133, fig. 61).

Many of Constable’s preliminary sketches were made en plein air directly observing the landscape before him. They have been hailed as some of the painter’s most immediate and successful works, demonstrating the artist’s ‘supremely various and flexible way of working in oil’ (J. Gage, ‘Constable: The Big Picture’, in ibid., p. 29). The present sketch shows the artist’s interest in capturing the atmospheric light of the scene, with the tree to the right falling in the direct light of the sun, while those on the left remain in the shadow of the billowing clouds above. Constable brilliantly records, with only a few swift strokes of his brush, the complex reflections of the trees in the still waters of the Stour and the bending reeds in the foreground, blending strokes of thick, wet paint to articulate the shadows and highlights of the leaves. Constable’s practice when painting the ‘six-footers’, was to use these numerous preparatory sketches and drawings to ‘recreate his Suffolk material synthetically in the studio’ creating a full-scale preparatory sketch for the picture (fig. 3; Washington, National Gallery of Art), as ‘a means of ‘knitting’ together these disparate elements’ into a cohesive composition (ibid., p. 128), which could then be refined and worked up into the final, finished picture.

The exhibition of The White Horse at the Royal Academy in 1819 marked a seminal moment in Constable’s career. Believing passionately in the ‘natural landscape’, the painter’s six-foot canvases represented a renewed bid for recognition both of his subject matter and of himself as a painter. The painting was met with great acclaim, attracting more attention than anything he had exhibited before and led to Constable’s long-awaited election as an Associate of the Royal Academy in November 1819. Indeed, throughout his life, the painter considered The White Horse one of his most important and successful paintings. C.R. Leslie recorded Constable writing to his cousin Miss Gubbins that it was: ‘one of my happiest efforts on a large scale, being a placid representation of a serene grey morning summer’ (C.R. Leslie, op. cit., p. 82).

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