Early Six-Foot Stour River Paintings
In 1816 Constable married his longtime sweetheart Maria Bicknell, granddaughter of the rector of East Bergholt. The couple settled in London, where the pressures of their growing family weighed heavily on the artist, who, at the age of forty, had yet to attain membership in the Royal Academy. His desire for greater professional recognition may have prompted his bold decision, in 1818, to begin working on monumental canvases intended to rival the landscapes of not only the old masters, but also his celebrated contemporary J.M.W. Turner. Over the next fourteen years Constable submitted the six-foot paintings regularly to exhibitions at the academy; size alone guaranteed these works would be noticed.
For the first six of these great landscapes, Constable chose the subject he knew best: daily life along the Stour River. In 1819 he exhibited The White Horse, an unassuming narrative of a tow horse being ferried from one bank of the river to another. Presented in heroic dimensions, this subject challenged the very conventions of landscape painting, which held that biblical, historical, or mythological themes set within idealized landscapes were alone capable of conveying significant moral or intellectual meaning and thus suited to grandeur of scale. The quiet rural scenes favored by Constable were thought appropriate for more modest canvases. Yet the sheer vitality of The White Horse, with its lush handling and fidelity to nature, earned Constable much critical acclaim. Soon thereafter he was voted an associate member of the academy.
While his smaller paintings could be developed easily from sketches painted from nature, Constable realized that the six-footers presented a new and complex set of technical challenges with regard to composition and level of finish, especially as he was unable to paint them outdoors directly before his subject. Rethinking the demands of his art, he undertook the remarkable step of creating full-scale sketches to try out his ideas. Although artists traditionally had used full-sized drawings on paper to help prepare their canvases, composing a preliminary full-scale sketch in oil on canvas for a large exhibition work was unprecedented. The sketches are powerful works in their own right and are widely admired today for their immediacy and vigorous brushwork. To Constable, however, they were considered to be simply the means to an end, and he kept them in his studio, never displaying or selling them. He in effect painted each composition twice — with all the commitment of time, effort, and expense (for materials) which that entailed — but he received critical attention and payment for only the finished work.
Constable seemed to tackle each full-scale sketch anew, never settling on a compositional formula. None of the sketches corresponds exactly with the resultant finished work; Constable added, removed, and rearranged elements in both sketches and final versions, continually rethinking and perfecting along the way. For example, the central foreground figures of the boy and horse in The Hay Wain (full-size sketch), c. 1820, the preliminary sketch for the third of his six-footers, were originally also included in the celebrated final version from 1821. Constable subsequently painted them out, thus sharpening the focus on the wagon, the crux of the picture. The sketch’s quick, broad strokes plot out the scene; large passages of the dark brown ground were left untouched. In comparison, the finished version is fluidly painted, rich in both coloring and description.
Like the other Stour River scenes, The Hay Wain depicts a workaday subject set in a specific place (the house to the left belonged to a tenant farmer, Willy Lott). Yet the title under which Constable originally exhibited the work, Landscape: Noon, suggests a more generalized intent, removing it from the realm of topographical painting and placing it within the more esteemed tradition of representing the cycles and moods of nature. The painting, which has since become Constable’s most famous image, was shown in Paris in 1824. The expressive force of its execution, with its rich layering of pigment, had a profound effect on French artists such as Eugène Delacroix.
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