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John Constable

As if standing on a grassy riverbank, we look across the placid surface of a river that is lined along the opposite bank with trees and farm animals in this horizontal landscape painting. The scene is painted loosely with brushstrokes visible throughout, so some details are difficult to make out. For the surface of the river, russet brown and steel gray paint skims lightly across the canvas and leaves some unpainted areas visible, creating the effect of light shimmering on the still water. A palette of muted greens and browns conveys the calm country scene below a light and cloud-filled sky. On our left, a shallow wooden barge propelled along the stream by two men in red caps with long poles, carries a white horse wearing blinkers and a harness along the stream in front of us. The riverbank behind them is lined with pale, sage-green grass tinged with gold, growing in front of a tangle of darker green trees and bushes. Across the water from us near the middle of the picture, a small rowboat sits in the shallows at the foot of a steep riverbank. Above, a white cottage with a reddish roof and chimney is tucked behind the trees, with a wooden rack full of honey colored hay next to it. Nearby, a plow and wheeled cart, highlighted with strokes of white, sit near more mounds of hay painted with dashes of chocolate brown and dusty tan. Rocky fields reach into the distance. The vista is blocked to our right by another clump of trees and a rocky outcropping, rising from the stream, to our right of center. The steep, dark roof of a farmhouse is barely visible among the trees. Along the riverside to our right, a small group of cinnamon brown and cream-colored cows stand at water's edge. A rolling pasture stretches behind them to meet blue hills in the distance. Above, in the upper third of the painting, mottled white, pale rose, and gray clouds rolling across a steel-gray sky are reflected in the water below.

John Constable, The White Horse, 1818-1819, oil on canvas, Widener Collection, 1942.9.9

John Constable (1776–1837) created landscapes that ranged from sketches with broad, loose strokes to highly polished and tightly rendered finished paintings. He would often arbitrarily end the painting process at any degree of finish in between. The four-by-six-foot painting The White Horse (1819), part of the Widener Collection at the National Gallery of Art, seemed to have been painted in one of these intermediate styles at the time of its donation in 1942.

Once considered a same-size second version of the highly finished The White Horse in the Frick Collection, New York City, the Widener White Horse showed a halfway degree of finish that became problematic in determining its attribution. If the painting had been more of a sketch, experts likely would have attributed it to Constable, because over the course of his career he had created nine four-by-six-foot paintings for the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy. For all but The White Horse, he had first created a full-size sketch. Because the Gallery's painting seemed more like a finished work than a sketch, and was somewhat awkwardly realized in a technique that did not really match any of those typically seen in Constable’s paintings, by 1977 scholars concluded that the painting was a lesser copy by another artist.

John Constable, The White Horse, 1818-1819

This is an image of the painting before cleaning. It shows how heavy and flat the trees and sky appeared. This awkwardness is not characteristic of Constable's sketches or of his finished paintings and demonstrates the reason the painting had been de-attributed from Constable before it was cleaned.

In 1984, the Constable expert Charles Rhyne asked National Gallery conservators to prepare an x-radiograph of the painting so that its layering structure could be studied. He and the conservators noticed a second, entirely different composition beneath the painting. It appeared that here Constable had first attempted a large version of Dedham Vale from the Coombs, a scene he had realized in small charcoal sketches and small paintings, such as the well known one in the Victoria and Albert Museum, but had never painted on a large scale. For some reason, Constable abandoned this subject and reused the canvas to paint a version of The White Horse.

constable-during-treatment

This image illustrates the painting during cleaning. The central portion shows the repaint still in place but with the varnish removed, except in the brown/yellow rectangular area at the upper right of the central section where the discolored varnish is still in place. The areas at both side show the painting free of the overpaint and discolored old varnish. The loose and free quality of a Constable sketch is beginning to emerge.

Finding a known Constable composition underneath the painting was an indication that the artist had been involved in producing this canvas from the beginning, because it would have been extremely unlikely for a copyist or forger to first enlarge an obscure small work, then paint a copy of a different work over top. This revelation prompted a thorough scientific analysis of the layers of the painting in an effort to explain the discrepancy between its appearance and likely authorship. Analysis of a few, very tiny, samples of the paint, taken in cross-section, allowed all the layers to be studied under the microscope.

This examination revealed several layers of thick, resinous, nonoriginal paint that had been applied at some later date over much finer and more precise layers; a thick layer of varnish separated the two distinct types of layers. This analysis indicated that whatever was beneath the visible White Horse had been extensively repainted at a later date. Testing showed that it was possible to remove the overpaint layers to reveal the original Constable work beneath. After several years of painstaking work, the painting as it exists today was exposed and is now accepted by experts to be the missing White Horse sketch.

constable-xray

This is an image of the x-radiograph. The bridge and the church steeple of the "Dedham Vale" painting can be seen just to the left of center.

To investigate other sites related to this painting see:

The Frick Collection: John Constable's The White Horse

The Victoria and Albert Museum:  John Constable's Dedham Vale from the Coombs