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John Constable (1776 - 1837)

Lot 3: John Constable, R.A. (1776-1837)


November 30, 2000
London, United Kingdom

More About this Item


The White Horse: A sketch oil on canvas 24 x 201/2 in. (61 x 52 cm.) PROVENANCE Possibly Lionel Bicknell Constable. Possibly his sale, Christie's, London, 2 March 1874, no. 167, as 'The White Horse. A sketch for the picture'. with Arthur Tooth and Sons Ltd, London. Private collection, Switzerland. LITERATURE R. Hoozee, L'Opera Completa di Constable, Milan, 1979, p.111, no. 253, illustrated. G. Reynolds, The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, New Haven and London, 1984, I pp. 28, 30, 31, no. 19.3 illustrated II pl. 70. J. Hayes, The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogues: British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries, Washington 1992, p. 33, illustrated fig.5 as 'Willy Lott's House and Thatched Boat Shelter and Barn.' NOTES This upright oil sketch, very possibly executed en plein air, played a crucial role in the development of one of Constable's most celebrated paintings: The White Horse, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1819 as 'A scene on the river Stour'. This large picture, now in the Frick Collection, New York oblong in format and measuring 513/4 x 74 in., was the first of the series of Constable's 'six-footers', all measuring approximately 51 x 72 inches; further examples were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1820, 1821 and 1822 (Reynolds, op.cit, pp. 27-9, no. 19.1, illustrated in colour pl. 68; the subsequent examples of Stratford Mill, R.A. 1820, private collection, Reynolds, pp. 43-4, no. 20.1, colour pl. 129; The Hay Wain, London, National Gallery, Reynolds pp. 67-9, no 21.2, colour pl. 213; and View on the Stour at Dedham, Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino, Reynolds pp. 99-100, colour pl. 334). Each of these 'six-footers' as preceeded by a life-size oil sketch, painted by Constable not for sale or exhibition but to work out his composition at full size, and perhaps to express himself in paint with the freedom he would not risk for an exhibition picture. That for The White Horse, measuring 501/2 x 72 in., is in the National Gallery of Art, Washington (Reynolds, pp. 29-30, illustrated in colour pl. 69); those for the subsequent six-footers are in the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven (Reynolds, p. 45, no. 20.2, colour pl. 130); the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Reynolds, pp. 69-70, no. 21.2, colour pl. 214), and formerly Royal Holloway College (Reynolds p.100, no. 22.2, colour pl. 335). The evolution of The White Horse was particularly complex, the present upright sketch playing a particularly important role. X-ray photographs of the life-size sketch (Washington) show that it was painted directly over a completely different composition, an extended version of Dedham from Gun Hill (see G. Reynolds, The Early Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, New Haven and London, 1996, pp. 149-50, nos. 10.33 and 10.34, pls. 858 and 865), itself a development of The Valley of the Stour, with Dedham in the Distance in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Reynolds 1996, pp. 127-8, no.08.57, colour pl. 738). Reynolds dates the first version c. 1808-9, Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams ( Constable, exhibition catalogue, London, Tate Gallery, 1991, pp. 66-7, no.7, colour ill.) c. 1805-9, and the later version is dated by Reynolds under 1810, though he does not altogether rule out Parris' and Fleming-Williams' dating of '? c. 1815' ( op.cit., pp. 68-9, no. 9, colour ill.). The six-foot picture now known about through x-rays (see C. Rhyne, 'Constable's First Two Six-Foot Landscapes', Studies in the History of Art, National Gallery of Art, Washington, vol. xxiv, 1990, pp. 109-29, illustrated; also discussed by Parris and Fleming-Williams, loc.cit, ill. fig. 2, and Reynolds 1996, pp. 127-8, 149 and 212-3, under nos. 08.57, 10.33, 10.34, and 15.44, 15.44A, 15.45 and 15.46) has most recently been associated with a reference in a letter from Constable to his wife Maria of 19 October 1815: 'I have put rather a larger landscape on hand than ever I did before and this it is my wish to secure in a great measure before I leave this place' - East Bergholt. Constable also referred to a large picture in a letter of 3 November 1815 and showed a large landscape to his father on 19 January 1816. It seems plausible therefore that Constable was planning, and perhaps executing, his first 'six-footer' as early as the second half of 1815, originally with the intention of exhibiting it at the Royal Academy the following summer. Realising, perhaps, that this open panoramic landscape lacked sufficient visual emphasis for the new size he then overpainted it, in such a hurry that he did not even add a new ground, with the White Horse subject, probably latish in 1818 as a preparation for the 1819 Academy picture. At this stage Constable reverted to the theme of Willy Lott's Cottage and the boathouse to be seen in the present upright canvas, which is itself based on a pencil drawing in a sketchbook used by Constable in Suffolk and Essex from July until October 1814 and now in the Victoria and Albert Museum (1259-1888; Reynolds, 1996, p. 197, no. 14.32, p. 66, illustrated pl. 1164; see also Parris and Fleming-Williams, p. 413, illustrated p. 412, fig. 131). There is also a seperate drawing of the boathouse (Reynolds 1984, pp. 30-31, no. 19.5, pl. 72), and a drawing from a sketchbook of 1813 may also have been used for the effect of lilies and grass seen on and against the water (Reynolds 1996, p. 184, no. 13.17, p. 55, pl. 1051). A further, smaller oil sketch extended the composition to the right (Reynolds 1984, p. 30, no. 19.4, pl. 71), but it was not until he tackled the life-size sketch (Washington) that Constable added the motif that earned the final version the name by which it has always been known, The White Horse, from the barge carrying the horse across the river on the left. In certain details the final, exhibited picture is closer to the present work than to the life-size sketch: the outline of the main tree on the left and the placing of the gable end of Willy Lott's cottage at right-angles to the main building rather than on the same axis. The upright sketch thus played a key part in the evolution of Constable's White Horse, the success of which at the 1819 Royal Academy exhibition led to his election as an Associate of the Academy later the same year, in November. C.R. Leslie, Constable's first biographer, recognised the vital place of the picture in Constable'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, 1843, ed. Jonathan Mayne, London 1951, p.76). Interestingly, despite the present sketch's formal structure (ultimately derived from Claude's landscape with Hagar and the Angel), it seems to have been painted on the spot rather than in the studio, the barn roof just visible above the boatshed being absent from the pencil sketch of 1814. To be more precise it may, as Reynolds suggests, be one of a group of oils sketched by Constable referred to by Joseph Farington in his diary in 1817 and 1818: on 11 November 1817 'Constable called and told me he had passed 10 weeks at Bergholt in Suffolk with his friends, & painted many studies'; on 24 November he added that W.R. Bigg, R.A. had spoken 'favourably of Constable's oil sketches done in the summer'; and on 31 January 1818 'Constable I called on... I saw a number of his painted sketches and drawings done last summer, but he had not any principal work in hand' (Reynolds 1984, p. 10, under no. 17.24).

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November 30, 2000, 12:00 AM EST

London, United Kingdom