‘Not since Constable’s The Lock have we had the opportunity to work with a painting of this calibre by one of the titans of British painting,’ states Jussi Pylkkänen, Global President of Christie’s International, of the full-scale sketch for the artist’s defining series of large-scale canvases of the Stour Valley.
The work clearly illustrates why John Constable RA (1776-1837) is considered the father of British Modernism and acclaimed as an instinctive painter of nature and the elements. It will be offered alongside masterpieces by Reynolds, Leighton, Lowry, Spencer, Bacon and Freud in Christie’s 250th anniversary Defining British Art sale in London on 30 June.
The six large-scale canvases of the Stour Valley that Constable exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1819 and 1825 define his artistic maturity and secured his professional reputation. Including several of his most celebrated works, notably The White Horse (1819, New York, Frick Collection), and The Hay Wain (1821, London, National Gallery), they represent a distillation of Constable’s emotional and artistic response to the scenery of his native Suffolk.
The group shows a radical shift from his earlier work, both in the ambition of their scale and in the unprecedented working method, with the introduction of a full-size sketch for each composition.
Constable’s use of full-scale sketches would appear to be unique in Western art. This example, for the fourth work in the series, View on the Stour Near Dedham (San Marino, the Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens), which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1822, is the last of the full-scale sketches to remain in private hands.
‘Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery from 1934 to 1946, for good reason described Constable’s celebrated series of full-scale sketches as “the greatest thing in English art”,’ explains John Stainton, International Director and Head of British Old Master Paintings at Christie’s. ‘This example was bought privately more than 20 years ago, having last appeared on the market at Christie’s in 1883. It survives in astonishingly fresh condition, allowing the viewer to fully appreciate the energy, passion and skill of the most celebrated painter of the English landscape.’
Constable’s determination to execute landscapes of such size arose from his wish to elevate the 'natural scenery' onto a far more ambitious scale, more in keeping with the achievements of the classical landscape painters he so admired. He also wanted to achieve the professional and critical success at the Academy that had largely eluded him, scale being an important factor in gaining the attention of the Academy establishment and critics.
Constable was striving to create a more ambitious and focused design, and the role of the full-scale sketch was crucial
Underlying these twin ambitions was a new imperative to achieve commercial success, given his marriage in 1816 to Maria Bicknell and the costs associated with keeping a family in London, where he had moved that year.
Constable appears to have started work on the picture in early autumn 1821. The scene shows the stretch of the River Stour upstream from Flatford Mill and Lock, looking towards Flatford footbridge, with Bridge Cottage on the right and the tower of Dedham church in the distance.
In his three previous full-scale sketches Constable had transferred most of the figures from the sketch to the finished picture and then painted them out where they interfered with the balance of the composition. In View on the Stour, however, most of his important alterations were executed on the sketch itself, some of which are now discernible in the paint surface as pentimenti. These pentimenti add texture and give us an insight into the artist’s creative process as he grappled with his composition.
At this particular juncture in the River Stour series Constable was striving to create a more ambitious and focused design, and the role of the full-scale sketch was crucial to achieving this. While the figurative element in the first three of the large River Stour pictures is somewhat understated, in the next three paintings the figures take on a more emphatic role, adding dynamism to the composition. View on the Stour is clearly a pivotal work in this development.
Visitors to Christie’s in June will be able to see this rarely exhibited masterpiece, which will be a fitting highlight of the Defining British Art sale which marks the 250th anniversary of the founding of the company.